I’m at home over Thanksgiving. Not my home, but my old home that I still call home, despite not having lived there for a couple of decades. The home where my Dad lives. We are cleaning out the basement for a remodeling project–my sister, Chad, our kids. We take loads out to the driveway and drop them into a dumpster. Out with the old, preparing for the new.
I’m bent on my knees in front of a t.v. stand that holds very old video tapes. (Yes, tapes.) Old home movies that my sister has already moved to zip drives. A copy of the Lion King that was an old favorite. Somewhere between “Christmas, 1985” and Homeward Bound I find a small black cassette tape. A thin white strip of paper is on the front and in green faded marker in my Mom’s handwriting is a single word: Summer.
I have vague memories of what is on this tape. I know my Mom’s voice is on it. And I know my voice is on it. I tuck the cassette into my pocket and and carry it home with me.
Once home, I lay the cassette on a shelf in the kitchen, unsure what to do with this blast-from-the-past-piece-of-technology. Chad and I discuss how we might find something on which we can listen to the tape. People we might contact. We don’t try very hard, though. The cassette sits on the table, untouched, for months.
November. December, January, February.
The cassette tape sits where I see it and every now and then I think about how I wish I could play it. But how?
In February I visit my sister. In passing conversation I tell her about the tape I had taken home from our childhood home. She offers a suggestion, I bet you will find a cassette player at a thrift store. (My little sister solves most of my problems.)
Three days after I return home from my sisters house, I walk out the mailbox to retrieve the mail. I find a box inside and open it. In the box I find a throw back walkman. I take a picture of it and send it to my sister.
Oh my gosh! I type and send.
I hope it plays the tape! she responds.
I take the walkman out of the box. It’s time to pick Meadow up from school, but I can’t wait. I race to the remote to steal the AA batteries and grab the black cassette tape with the green writing, before climbing into the car to drive to the school. My hands are shaking as I ram the cassette into the player. I turn the radio off in the car and push play on the walkman.
My heart sinks. I fumble with the three buttons on top and find it’s like riding a bike. I press the rewind button and hear the familiar speeding hum of the tape racing toward the beginning. When it stops, I try the play button again. After a moment, it’s there–my Mom’s voice.
It’s been nearly 14 years since I’ve heard her voice, but there it is. As familiar as if I heard it yesterday. I sit in the school parking lot, wiping away tears, shocked at the treasure I hold in my hand.
I listen to my Mom explain, that was Summer at 6 months old. In another clip, that was Summer at 9 months old.
When I return home from picking Meadow up from school, I drink in every minute of the tape. On and on it goes, for 60 minutes. Clips of my Mom talking to me, my brother, and my sister, four years my junior, makes a small appearance, as well. I record this clip or that one and send it to my brother or my sister. For an hour, I listen to her voice. I hear my Dad’s as well. For an hour I am transported back through decades to a time I was too young to remember.
I listen as my babble turns to words. I listen to my brother recite his A,B,Cs. I listen as I mimic him. I listen to my report of first days of preschool. I hear as my Mom interview me about my favorite things and people. Every now and then I stop the cassette to let the lump in my throat settle. To wipe away tears.
When the tape ends and the kitchen is quiet, I look at Chad who had been listening with me. She delighted in us, I commented about my Mom. I think I forget that sometimes. I forget how much she delighted in us.
In that moment, I remembered. I remembered her love. Her laughter. Her joy. Her silliness. In that moment, on a random Wednesday afternoon, over forty years after my Mom first pressed “Record”, I remembered.
The last few years of my Mom’s life were really hard on all of us, but listening to her voice reminded me that the end doesn’t wipe out the beginning. All of it mattered. All of it.
My Mom had no way of knowing in 1979 that her voice on a cassette tape would mean so much to me today. And something about that brought me back to this space to write something again. To use my voice in the way that she did in the off chance that someday, years and years from now, it might mean something to my own kids.