Saturday, December 10, 2005


In Which I Hear Voices from the Past...

Beard: Day 2

As some of you were aware, my parents were here a month or so ago to help Thomas turn 7, and also to lavish their usual brand of spoilage on my children.

But this visit, my mom also had something for me, in the form of a box filled with all sorts of childhood detritus.

Here are my class pictures from kindergarten; from 4th grade, from 8th grade. There are three books--originally empty books--crammed thick with my awful writing from between the ages of 9 and 12. Assorted certificates of achievement from assorted schools: one for English, another for...English. And another. And another. And one for math?!? Where the hell did that come from?

It was in this box that I found my letter to Santa Claus, as well as assorted Polaroid photos of nothing (I was rather fond of our Polaroid camera as a kid). Among the other letters I found were a sheaf of Aerogrammes (for so they were called) from my pal in Australia. In those halcyon pre-email days, we would write each other regularly, but it still took two weeks to get letters back and forth. And I have to say, as much as I enjoy the welcome "ping" that indicates a new message in my inbox, nothing matches the satisfaction that comes from dashing over to your mailbox and finding a slim blue letter from a friend.

Alas, one hoped-for item missing was my letter from Carlton Fisk: two hand-written index cards and an autographed picture. They hung on my bulletin board for years--along with the various certificates of recognition--so I was sort of expecting the letter would be in there amongst the citations.

Alas, no. Knowing myself, I probably separated them from the usual paperwork when we moved and decided to put the letter and picture some place safe. So safe, it turns out, that even I will not be able to get my hands on it.

At the very bottom of the box, I found the tapes.

Most are mini-tapes, which went to my miniature GE recorder, a 12th birthday present. I loved that thing like I've loved nothing else. As a boy detective, I discovered it was perfect for recording interviews with victims, discussing theories about mysteries, etc. But in my more bored moments--and there were all too many of them--I began to use the recorder for other purposes. Mostly, I made my own radio station, in which I was the DJ and main announcer. I mostly recorded theme songs to shows I loved. But I also did man-on-the-street interviews--usually my brother was the man. I even had a very popular radio program--at least it was popular among my 7th grade friends. The show, I regret to tell you, was titled "Fart Cinema." And it was exactly what you think it was.

We captured some great noises on that recorder during Fart Cinema. My friend Shawn had a way of making his always end on a kind of high, question-like note. Durwood, one of our pals and great devotee of the show, also participated, although his contributions almost always sounded like he'd just had a serious accident. And to be honest, I'm not sure he didn't.

The problem with Fart Cinema--indeed, the problem with all of my mini-tapes--is that the old recorder up and died long ago. And all new cassette-playing mini-recorders (Her Lovely Self has one) play tapes that are rather a bit smaller. So here I am, stuck with three Beta tapes of great stuff in a world of VHS players.

Among the small tapes, though, there were a few larger standard-sized tapes, older tapes. In fact, they are 30 years old. I know this because they were made using the large Radio Shack tape recorder my grandfather--my mother's dad--gave us over Thanksgiving as an early Christmas present. The recorder was enormous and cumbersome, but it had an external mic and proved relatively easy to hide under books and throw pillows. In this manner, my brother and I were able to create our first successful show--"Hidden Recorder"--and secretly record such exciting moments as...Thanksgiving dinner.

Which is what was on the first tape I played. It's all a jumble of crowd noises. We only played this once and decided we needed to do Hidden Recorder with a smaller crowd, and lots closer to the subject. I thought we had erased over this tape, but here it was, and the more I listened to it, the more I could pick out voices.

There's my aunt Cathy, still in her 20s. And, oh my God, here's my mom, age 31, yelling "All right! There'll be NONE of it. ABSO-lutely NONE of it." And we hear a child say "Aw, jeezum!" But my mom has moved on, already complaining that she had over-cooked the turkey. And now here's a young man with a New England accent, sounding very much like my brother, only his speech is slurred. I realize with a start that it's my father.

"Heah, fella, have annutha drink fa Chrissake!" says an almost equally slurred voice. It's my grandfather, a famous drunk in his own right, urging my father to keep pace.

" know bettah...than to egg the poah man on. Cahn't you simply...leave him in peace?

The clipped accent, the carefully measured tones, like a cross between Captain Kirk and Katharine Hepburn, belong to my grandmother, 6 years dead now. She was a tall, very regal-looking, very formal woman, and for whatever reason she intimidated my grandfather (not just because she was taller). My grandmother was the only woman in her family to go to college--she became a registered dietitian--and she was one smart lady. She was pretty ruthless with my mom, alas, and they had many issued they never quite resolved before my grandmother succumbed to dementia and died after a year of confusion and frightening behavior.

But back then, in 1975, she was the sharpest knife in the drawer. And it also must be said that she doted on me. When I showed an interest in books at a very young age, she would bring them to me by the boxload and let me read to her. She also used to tell me stories about her parents and grandparents, who had come from France and Ireland. I enjoyed hearing about the grandfather who trained horses for racing. I especially enjoyed stories about her father, who was famous locally for inventing all sorts of contraptions and who, to save trolley fare in the winter, would walk across the frozen Charles River on his way to work in the mornings.

"Did he ever fall in?" I remember asking.

"Just the once," Grandma would say, then pause and smirk. "But once was...quite enough." And then she'd tell how he showed up at the railroad office where he worked, frozen, his clothing board-stiff. And how, while waiting for his clothes to dry, he felt his ear itching like crazy, went to scratch it, and broke off the top of his earlobe. It had been frozen through and through.

And now here she is on the tape, not telling stories, but talking in a low tone to someone about their table manners. For a second I think she must be talking to my cousin Michael, except he was an infant in 1975. I can hear him squealing and fussing. I remember him as a sweet but willful baby who was into everything and who liked to do whatever the big boys--my brother and I--did.

Hearing his squealing makes me suddenly wistful. He's still about 10 or so years from smoking his first joint; a good 17 years from trying the heroin that will eventually hook him, leading to a string of arrests, a long list of halfway houses that he has attended and been banned from; and a series of unfortunate choices that will leave him, at 30, unemployed, with minor brain damage, and in the middle of an acrimonious custody battle between himself, his son's mother (who is even more fucked up than my cousin), and my aunt Cathy. For a moment, I wish I was in a Twilight Zone episode, where I could plug in some magic microphone and record a brief message that would be heard on that tape 30 years ago. Tell my father to stop drinking. Tell aunt Cathy to keep her son away from the company of certain boys.

(While I was at it, I might even tell my grandfather to go ahead and get that tech stock he was hemming and hawing about in the late 70s or early 80s. He eventually decided not to invest in tech stocks, went with shares in some kind of steel company and lost his shirt. He often wondered how the other stock did, but he could never remember the name of the company: It was called "Micro" something. They made programs for computers, Sounded pretty dodgy to him.)

Thinking about cousin Michael makes me wonder where her big sister, cousin Kelly, is. I get my answer a moment later, when the tape suddenly shifts to this unexpected moment. Kelly is the female voice. My brother is the one explaining where the gift came from.

I have absolutely NO idea who the singing child is. None whatsoever.

And then, thankfully, mercifully, the recording shifts back to the dinner.

And so I sat there the other night, listening intently, trying to sort out every word, everyone conversation.

At one point, Her Lovely Self walked by.

"What ARE you listening to?" she asked. "Some kind of concert?"

"No," I said, not looking up from the recorder. "I'm trying to follow the conversations."

HLS cocked an ear one more time. "Huh. Makes absolutely no sense to me. Everyone's talking and yelling and jabbering at the same time."

"Yes," I nodded, agreeing with her. "That's my family."

From Somewhere on the Masthead

This was a brilliant post. The thing with your grandfather and Microsoft reminds me of the scene in this Dennis Quaid movie (I forget the name) where he goes back in time and tells his best friend (at age 11) to "remember the word Yahoo." It's a great movie and this was a great post. It made me really look forward to the holidays with my family. Sometimes I wish the Ghost of Christmas Past would pay me a visit just so I could relive some of those past holidays of my childhood...with people that are no longer here today.
MM- One of my favorite posts. I know very well the mix of nostalgia and yearning for the chance to briefly recapture a time gone by (perhaps even rewrite it) that you describe. I was talking to a friend the other day and I mentioned to her that I feel like I have the unique ability to look around me each day and realize that I will one day look back longingly on this time. It is for that reason that I suck the marrow out of life now; relish my time with the people still alive around me; savor the relationships I'm lucky enough to have and the combination of great things surrounding me, which would be easy to take for granted...

were I not silently lamenting their passing each day.

I look at it this way...

When I'm 80, I'd kill for one day in the life I now lead. I may as well pretend I've been granted that wish...and this time my youth is not going to be wasted on the young.

(See, being on hiatus means I can blog in other people's comments section.)

I loved this post! Of course I truly love your writing.

What a fantastic way to put things in perspective! I hope you won't mind if I steal that from you.

anyways. this post was simultaneously creepy, heartbreaking and lovely. you get a link!
Nice one MM! Makes me wish that I had had a tape recorder when I was younger. I make do with pictures. Everytime I go back home to visit the parents I look through all the old photos from Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays and, funnily enough, Super Bowl parties (my parents, back in the day before they turned into bitter old people, threw some rocking' Super Bowl parties). Sometimes it bring tears to my eyes, longing for simpler times before everything was so complicated and convoluted.

I love your song :)
That could have been my family. Or any of ours.

Listening to those tapes is like standing next to the Ghost of Christmas Past.
AJ said it. What a wonderful time to discover these tapes. Christmas is such a nostalgic time of year. Last year I acquired from ebay the CD version of an 8 track Christmas tape we used to listen to as a family when I was, oh, 4-8 years old. Living Strings & Living Voices - White Christmas. Very Lawrence Welk-y, but MAN, I'm 6 years old again when I hear those songs. :)

Anyone else have some Christmas traditions that carry over from their childhood?
I know just how you feel about the Fisk letter. For me it was one from Katharine Hepburn. I looked through all my boxes of letters even though I was pretty sure I hadn't thrown it in with all the letters and cards from friends and family. I kept going through boxes and drawers, all to no avail.

After a year of sporadic searching and wistful resignation, I pulled a book off a shelf and the letter fell to the floor. Here's hoping yours turns up one day too.
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