February 21, 2003
Dinner & A Movie

Friday morning, 7 a.m.

I am standing at the kitchen counter, packing our lunches for work. So far it's been slow-going. The pickings are usually pretty slim on Fridays: by the end of the week we're scraping the bottom of the barrel, lunch-material-wise. Rubbery baby carrots. Brown bananas. Moldy nut bread. A couple of ancient tangelos, tough and spongy as tennis balls. I've got a supply of emergency Luna Bars and a Tupperware container of dried fruit in my bottom desk drawer at the office, so I know I'm probably going to be OK, even in a pinch. But I'm worried about what I'm going to send with David today. I know that Fridays are crazy at the newspaper, and I want to make sure he's got plenty of stuff to graze on throughout the day. 

I'm about to ask him how he feels about a baggie of dry Cheerios -- the poor man's granola -- when my eyes land on a fat manila envelope, sitting on top of the refrigerator next to the cereal. The package bears a TicTac postmark ... and a distintive hickory aroma.

Holy cow! The beef jerky!

I'd completely forgotten about the package of homemade beef jerky my ex-husband sent to us earlier this week, fresh out of his Old Smokey 2000. David and I came home from work on Wednesday night, exhausted and hungry, and there was the package propped against our front door, waiting for us. I swear you could smell the peppery/spicy/woodsmokey aroma a mile away ... even through multiple layers of paper and plastic and aluminum foil. At that moment we were on our way back out the door to do laundry, so I tossed the package on top of the fridge, figuring we could snack on it before dinner. But then I promptly forgot all about it until just this moment.

Two or three pieces of homemade beef jerky will make perfect midafternoon fuel for David.

I rip open the manila envelope and pull out a quart-sized Ziploc bag stuffed full of meticulously hand-cured beef strips. On the front of the Ziploc bag, my ex-husband has written -- with typical economy of expression -- "A little dry but good."  (It's the exact same thing he says about every batch he sends us.) All I have to do is pick out a couple of good-sized strips, wrap them in foil, toss them into David's bag,  and voilà. Lunch. Then I can go back into the bedroom and catch a little Matt Lauer while I finish the Daily Maybelline.

But hold the phone. There's something else in the package, besides the bag of beef jerky.

Surprised, I reach into the bottom of the package and pull out a video cassette. Whut the hell? 

It has no cover or label. There is no note of explanation accompanying it. There are no identifying markings of any kind, as a matter of fact. It's just a plain black VHS cassette -- a very old VHS cassette, from the looks of it -- stuck into the bottom of the manila envelope. "This is weird," I say. Why is my ex-husband sending me a video? Is it old Pro Bowling footage? An EdKaz! video, inadvertently left behind when I ran away from home? An unmarked copy of "Tremors?" Mystified, I carry the cassette into the bedroom with me, along with a second cup of coffee and a stick of beef jerky, and I pop the cassette into the VCR, without rewinding, and push play.

The video flipflops violently a couple of times, and then it straightens itself out and begins to play. To my complete astonishment, all of a sudden I am looking at The Tots -- all three of The Tots, Daughters #1 and #2 and Son #Only -- clustered together on the sofa in my ex-husband's living room. Except that these aren't the hulking, husky-voiced, grown-up Tots I know and love and regularly subsidize with rental deposits and expensive electronics and CDNow Gift Certificates.

These are The Tots, circa 1991. Back when they were ... well ... actual Tots.

Ten-year-old Jaymi, in her leggings and her Paula Abdul hair. Kacie, eight years old, with crooked bangs and birthday cake frosting on her face. A kindergarten-aged Kyle, pink and sweet-cheeked and missing several *key* front teeth. The volume on the VCR is turned all the way down so I can't hear what they're saying: it's like watching a silent movie starring three of my favorite people on the planet. "Oh my god," I shriek, once I realize exactly what it is I'm looking at.

It's The Christmas Video.

The Christmas Video was a special gift from my dad and stepmother, back in the early 90's: a loosely-edited collection of family get-togethers, mostly Christmas Eves and birthdays, that my dad shot with his (then) brand-new camcorder. It is also, as far as I know, the only existing video record of all three of my children together during their early growing-up years. I remember that I was thrilled speechless when dad gave me The Christmas Video -- at last, I had The Tots documented on video for all time! -- and equally devastated when the video disappeared, almost as soon as we got it. I think we watched it once or twice, before it mysteriously vanished. I've been mourning its loss ever since.

David, hearing the commotion, comes running into the bedroom. "Are you OK?" he asks, looking panic-stricken. "What happened?"

Wordlessly, I point at the TV. He takes one look at the video -- at these flickering images of his stepchildren, ten years before he'll meet them -- and even with the sound turned off he immediately understands what is happening here. "Ray sent you a tape of the kids," he says.

I nod. I haven't started to cry yet, but tears are definitely blooming on the horizon. God ... they look so young.

"May I make a suggestion?" David says, with great tenderness. "I suggest that you not watch the tape right now, while you're trying to put on eye makeup for work" -- here he hands me a Kleenex, just in time to catch the first raindrop of Maybelline -- "but that we wait until we get home from work tonight, and then we'll watch it together. How about that?"

I agree. This sounds like a sensible plan.

Obediently, I stop the video and pull it out of the VCR. "We'll have to be very careful not to record over this," I say to David worriedly. Without any sort of label, I'm afraid The Christmas Video might accidentally get mixed up with the everyday VHS tapes we use to record stuff like "Survivor" and "CSI" and "The Bachelorette Chooses The Wrong Damn Guy." But David merely takes the video out of my hand and snaps off the little plastic tab from the back. ("There," he says. "Problem solved.") I tuck the tape into a spare cardboard holder -- I'll label it later, when I have more time -- and I set it next to the TV, for viewing later tonight. I have no idea where the tape has been, all these years, or how the ex managed to locate it. I don't know what prompted him to toss it into the beef jerky package. And to tell you the truth, I don't even remember exactly what's on the tape: it's going to be a little bit like watching it for the first time. But I do know this: the first thing I'm going to do when I get home from work tonight is crawl into bed, with a great big bag of beef jerky and an even bigger box of Kleenex ... and watch The Christmas Video.

The second thing I'm going to do is call the ex and thank him. It's not often that he treats me to dinner and a movie.

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