Our dad, Ensley Tiffin, was a recorder. He was a documenter. His two most important priorities were his church and his family, and in the 1950s, Ensley Tiffin decided to buy a movie camera and document both for posterity. My goodness, he had no idea exactly what kind of posterity he was dealing with.
We didn’t have much money growing up, and Dad hardly ever spent money on himself, as he had a family to support. He did have a stamp collection he lovingly organized, but he allowed himself two major expenses (and they, of course, were for the family): A yearly family vacation trip, and home movies. He took movies at home and at church, and carefully separated them, splicing each scene in its respective category, because as he put it, “I don’t want to bore the family with church movies or the church folks with family movies.” So by the time he died in 1980, he had amassed several decades’ worth of church movies, mostly of the church where we grew up, Harris Memorial Methodist Church in Memphis. The fact that they were "silent" movies did not detract from the vibrant personalities of those who were filmed.
Most people who knew him remember Ensley with a camera up in front of his face. His favorite place to stand was out on the sidewalk in front of the church, taking movies of everyone walking out the front door and down the steps. It’s fascinating to watch them now - the ladies with their flowery hats and gloves, kids in suits and dresses with petticoats and patent leather shoes, elderly ladies with their elbows held by one of the men who helped them maneuver the steps, a group of men gathering to smoke out on the curb. I always love to watch the people who were initially unaware of the camera, then a smile (usually a startled look, then a embarrassed or delighted grin) broke across their faces when they realized they were being filmed. Some of the older folks weren’t used to a movie camera, so they would stand very still until Dad told them, “You can move, you know.” The children would run around like crazy, enjoying the freedom after being cooped up for Sunday school and the worship service, many of them carrying little crafts they made or pamphlets from their Sunday school handouts.
And the parties! Back in the ‘50s, the “young adults” who were starting their families (our parents) in the church weren’t financially well off, but they loved to have a good time, so they did it on the cheap. Let’s have a costume party! A talent show! Hey, let’s dress up like hobos and each bring a can of stew and we’ll pour all the cans into one big pot and ladle it out! Let’s have a “womanless wedding,” where all the men dress up as a wedding party! Let’s put on a show that parodies all these crazy TV ads! The costumes were clever and always homemade. The laughter was contagious. The parties were memorable. The church fellowship hall, Moffett Hall, was the place to be!
Of course, there were the pictures of the Easter altars, some pans of the choirs from different years, the Christmas programs, a few weddings, some picnics, and some softball games. These movies run the gamut.
Harris Memorial closed after over 100 years of service, then later the church building tragically burned down. Like little capsules of time, though, the people in these home movies have shared something precious. Some of us were there the whole time, others were there for just a few years. Some of us have kept in touch for decades. Some have lost touch but reconnected. Some we can't find at all. We all share this though: We know what it was like to be running around on that sidewalk after church. We know where the hall was that Lib Wilson scared us as a witch at the Halloween party. We know what was in that closet under the stairs leading to the sanctuary. We can visualize that pulpit at which so many ministers preached. We can see in our minds the door where Billy Grogan stood and counted heads so he could record the attendance. We know what the choir loft looked like, we know where every restroom was, where every Sunday school room was, how the pews were laid out. We especially remember the light (and sometimes the wasps!) coming in those gorgeous old stained glass windows. We are the last generation to have experienced these things first-hand. These movies Dad left us remind us of a time gone by, experiences that changed every single person who was involved, in one way or another.
Last week with the death of another church member, I felt a strong urge to get these movies up and out there where people can see them. We have lost too many of our “church family” already, and before long, there won’t be anybody around to appreciate them. So Facebook it was.
In the last few years, my sister Joy and I had been looking into the possibility of publishing a collection of Dad’s letters, and have run into the stumbling block of legal ownership - Do the letters Dad wrote belong to us or the recipients - and do the letters he received in return belong to us or the writers? That’s all being worked on.
However, with his movies, we know to whom they belong. They belong to Marti, whose grandfather died shortly before she was born. She gets to watch him “photobomb” scene after scene in his animated and delightful way. They belong to Sheila, who recognized her late parents in a scene - filmed on their wedding day. Sheila wrote me, “I just can't tell you how blessed my heart was this morning when I unexpectedly saw this...This video helped me beyond what I can ever tell you. I've seen pictures of my parents but to see them moving in this video !!!!!!........ There are no words!” They belong to Phyllis, who felt blessed to see her grandfather; to the Grogan and Underwood families, who can watch their matriarch, Zuleika, who died just this week, demonstrate how she “blacked out” her teeth for a comedy routine to look as if she had some missing. They belong to the Tanners and Fosters and Prescotts and Agees and Archards, the Glasheens and Wilsons and Fletchers, the Rogans and Basses and Yarwoods and countless others who can see their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives, so many who have passed on. And they especially belong, I think, to the children. They belong to every child who was recorded singing in the Christmas program or playing an instrument, every kid who contorted his or her face at the camera, or who was maneuvered to line up out on the sidewalk for a group shot. My sister Joy and I were two of those kids - kids who are now grown, many of us with children and grandchildren of our own. We get to watch our little selves grow up in these films.
It’s kind of ironic that Dad once told us, “If anything happens to me, don’t just let my stamp collection go; take it to be appraised, as there may be some stamps worth something in there.” Joy and I did exactly that a few years ago - and we were told his stamp collection was considered worthless except for sentimental value.
What he thought might be valuable was not...and his real priceless legacy, his gift to generations of people he had never even met, has turned out to be his precious home movies. The gift for generations. At the time he recorded them, he would have not dreamed of the Internet, and that one day his beloved movies would be available for anyone to enjoy. That time has come, and I feel blessed to be a part of it.