Sarah Smiley: A surprising lack of home video footage of youngest sons

It was a not-so-dark and stormy night before Easter. A rash purchase, fueled by emotions and a day full of laundry (that will make sense later), had me lugging a box that was too big to be bagged out of Best Buy.

It was a not-so-dark and stormy night before Easter. A rash purchase, fueled by emotions and a day full of laundry (that will make sense later), had me lugging a box that was too big to be bagged out of Best Buy.

“I have a surprise for you guys,” I texted my sons, fully knowing the pandemonium I had unleashed back home. Kids love a surprise, especially the night before a major holiday. Except, my surprises are notoriously lame.

Dustin has asked me before to calibrate my definition of surprise, especially when I announce said surprise via text message while he is home alone with the kids. But I can’t help myself. To me, “surprise” can mean homemade brownies or, “Surprise, we bought you a dog!”

When I got home, I left the oversized box in the car. Two of my boys came running. “What is it? What is it?” they begged.

Behind them, Owen, 13, stood with his hands in his pockets and said, “Careful, guys, last time Mom said she had a surprise, it turned out to be a jigsaw puzzle of kittens sitting in a basket.”

“This is no puzzle,” I promised. “It’s a really good surprise.”

But first, before I could reveal my secret, we had to dye Easter eggs. If you’ve dyed eggs with children, you know it’s about as fun as a surprise jigsaw puzzle. Unknowingly, I had just stumbled upon the best way to speed up the process: Offer a “surprise” at the end.

“Everyone double up on eggs,” Ford, 15, said. “Have two eggs going at all times. Let’s bang this out fast and get to the surprise.”

I had never seen a craft go so quickly.

While the boys were working on their eggs, they decided that the “surprise” might be that someone was going to get voted out of the family. Their humor is so twisted and irreverent; I have no idea where they get it.

“But Mom said the surprise will make us happy,” Lindell, 9, said.

“Which depends on who is voted out, right?” Owen said. “She didn’t say it would make everyone happy.”

“Then it will definitely be me,” Ford guessed, “because I hum all the time and leave toothpaste on the sink.”

So revealing!

There were several tense moments where Ford and Owen convinced Lindell that the surprise was that he was adopted or that his name isn’t really Lindell. I worried that maybe I had let the guessing go on too long.

Then Lindell said, “Actually, maybe the surprise is that Mom is the Easter bunny.” He paused for a moment. “But, nah, because then we’d lose all our trust in her forever,” he said, “and the surprise is a happy one.”

Dustin pulled me into the other room. “I hope the surprise really is good,” he said.

“I bought a machine to convert all our old VHS tapes to DVD,” I whispered.

“Oh, well, that is kind of cool.”

For nearly eight years we have not had a VHS player and no way to see all the home movies sitting in a box in the basement. Every time I went downstairs to do laundry, I mourned the clunky black cassettes that held the moving, talking images of my children but lay unwatched and collecting dust. I couldn’t wait to see the boys’ eyes when they came face to face with baby Ford, Owen and Lindell.

Luckily, once I shared the surprise, the boys thought it was cool, too. They were excited and relieved, seeing as how no one was being voted out of the family.

I brought 15 VHS tapes up from the basement and plugged in the machine. First we watched our wedding, then a video of me and Ford while Dustin was on his first deployment.

Lindell screamed in almost maniacal delight at the sight of his big brother in diapers and with drool on his chin. “He is so vulnerable! And he knows absolutely nothing right there! I mean, he knew nothing!”

A half hour later, we put in another tape (more baby Ford), and another (more Ford), and another (Yep: Ford). All of the tapes, except for the one of our wedding, were of Ford—Ford sleeping, Ford eating solid food, Ford taking a bath, Ford petting the dog, Ford mouthing the phone.

Owen’s and Lindell’s mood turned sour. They were fidgeting and bored, and maybe they wished that being “voted out” was still an option. I fast-forwarded through tapes, desperate to find baby Owen or Lindell, but (surprise!) there was nothing of them.

Feelings were hurt. People stormed out. Doors slammed. And I cried in the living room while Dustin shook his head. “Enough with the surprises,” he said.

Okay, maybe just jigsaw puzzles from now on. Or brownies? Yes, brownies. No one is unhappy about brownies. Until their brother gets the bigger piece.