My friends thought I was joking when I told them I had just discovered the magic of motion pictures. They knew I loved the movies and went often. I had told them stories about growing up on a farm in Ohio during the depression, and about the long Sunday afternoons my sister and I spent begging Daddy, then Mother, to please take us to a picture show in Toledo. Most of the time they said we were too hard up, but occasionally, goody goody, we did drive the 15 miles into the Loew's, the Rivoli, or the palatial Paramount.
But recently I experienced the thrill that the first witnesses of moving pictures must have felt. What I had found was a box of 16-mm films taken of Aunt Mary in the 1940s.
She was born the same time as motion pictures, in the late 1890s. Her last years were filled with frustrations. Now, here she was, brought back to life for us, looking vibrant and beautiful. In one reel she stands looking at a tree covered with pink blossoms moving in the breeze. She turns, picks a bloom, brings it to her cheek, and looks directly at us, brown eyes snapping, until her face fills the screen. We felt her energy and spirit as we never had before.
Not that she hadn't always tried to make life fun and worthwhile. Pictures demonstrating that fill my mind. In a scene from the '30s my sister and I are huddled in the rumble seat of her roadster flying through the night, freezing but loving it. In another, Auntie has taken me skating on the quarry at Medusa, and the ice is so thick it holds up a car, which is spinning around, playing crack-the-whip with a tail of skaters roped to its bumper. In a Halloween memory , she has arrived on our porch after driving 90 miles to our party in a bear suit.
One of her best jobs was in a music store in Lima, Ohio, where she worked with a man who sang and played the piano like Dick Powell. She was right there to roll up the sheet music and make the sale.
Etched in my thoughts is the image of Mary, holding her box Kodak, taking a picture of me in my band uniform. Around my neck is her tenor saxophone, which was now mine, and which got me into marching bands from junior high school through college.
There was the treasured post card of the Rocky Mountains. She had taken off with two girlfriends, her ukelele, a bag of oranges, and just enough money for gas. When she moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s, she sent me a post card of a meadow covered with California poppies, with purple mountains in the distance. I thought that was a common southern California sight until I moved there 23 years ago.
Recently my mother, Mary's only sister, and my sister were coming out from back East, so I dug up that cardboard box of films I had more or less forgotten after moving it from her garage to ours. (A sticker on one box of 100 feet of film read, ''Thrift Stores, $8.55.'' The postage to send the developed film from Kodak was 41/2 cents.)
I rented a 16-mm projector. We couldn't believe what we saw; we didn't remember her ever mentioning movies. She had been married, and evidently her husband had taken the pictures. One reel is titled ''Movie Club Picnic,'' and we assume the members got together to share equipment and techniques.
Whatever it is that turns science into art was present at moments in these little films. We loved the one where she takes a ride in an open-cockpit airplane. Wearing a summer dress, she jumps up onto the wing, puts on a helmet, turns and smiles, climbs in, and takes off into the blue, blue sky. We were lifted up. We watched her prancing in the surf at Santa Monica, chopping wood outside a stone cabin at Mammoth Lakes, watching the 1947 Rose Parade, and strolling down a palm-lined street in Hollywood.
The happiest shock for me was the field of poppies. Suddenly, there it was. She was sitting in the middle of a field of poppies, looking radiant and serene. ''Look, it's me, Mary.''
I am crazy about the movies.