Wading through masses of “stuff” we’ve kept in boxes, drawers, bins, closets, and who knows where else, my wife came across some old cassette tapes. Her encounter with the tapes happened as she was seeking to find things to give away, sell, or discard in preparation for selling our house and moving along to the next phase.
Most of the cassette tapes contain music that’s readily available elsewhere. I recorded most of the tapes, back when I spent my time doing such things. I used to record cassettes of my favorite music so I could listen in my car. That was before CDs and, then, MP3 files, etc., were available in traffic.
One tape, though, didn’t look like my music tapes. Written in ink on the label for side A was this: “Homemade Tape: First Portion in Corpus – Circa 1973; Second Portion in Houston – Circa 1983.” I had no recollection of the tape, but the label intrigued me. I had to listen. I tried some of the old cassette players we still have lying around, the battery-powered portables we used to buy, but they did not work, even with new batteries. So I went to the only convenient place I could listen to the tape: the car.
I sat in the garage and listened to much of one side of the tape. As I began listening, I could hear the voice of one of my brothers talking to me. His voice sounded like it does today, but with more precise enunciation, not yet marked by his time living for a long while in deep twang east Texas.
He said we had just spoken on the phone and what he was about to attempt was the taping we’d discussed on the phone. Apparently, he had come across reel-to-reel tapes someone, maybe he, had recorded. Since he had no means to record directly from reel-to-reel onto cassette tapes, he opted to try to record with a microphone set up in front of the speakers as he played the reel-to-reel tape.
I heard my voice as a 21 year-old disaffected student. I heard my brother, next to me in age, talk about how much he enjoyed the salad my mother had prepared. He sounded the same way he sounds today.
I heard my mother, her voice different from the way I remember it, talking about buying avocados at a price of seven for a dollar and buying squash for 25 cents a pound. Her accent, with a Southern and not a Texan drawl. reminded me of her sister’s, my aunt’s, drawl. I didn’t recognize my mother’s voice immediately. That shocked me, because in my mind I remembered what she sounded like; the recording made me realize my memory was out of sync with reality.
I heard my father’s voice. It took me a few moments, but his voice sounded the way I expected it to sound. Hearing his voice, I could see his face and watch his expressions change as he spoke about someone who had recovered some lumber.
I heard my oldest brother’s voice, too, and it sounds just like it does today. Not just the voice, but the mode of delivery is distinctively his. I think I heard his then-wife on the 1973 part of the tape, but I’m not sure about that.
I think I heard my other former sister-in-law’s voice on the Houston tape from 1983. I know I heard my niece and nephew chattering about in the background.
Most of the tape was flooded with noise of family, everyone talking at once in the background, but it was apparent that all the disparate conversations were audible to the respective participants. Hearing it as an “outsider” listening in, it sounded chaotic, but I know it was just multiple conversations going on; me wanting to hear every one of them, but being unable to focus on any single speaker. I was too wrapped up in the emotion of hearing my past play out in my ears. Hearing the voices of my parents, who’ve been dead many years now, was an emotional experience I wasn’t expecting.
As I listened to the tape, I found myself wishing fervently that I had made a point of recording and preserving the voices of my parents and each of my siblings. And I wondered whether my siblings have made a point of recording their voices so that their children or their nieces and nephews and those who follow could have the experience of listening to voices from their past. I know I have not made a point of doing that. But maybe, just maybe, I will do that, now that I’ve heard that tape and wished I could hear more.
I vaguely remember the espionage aspect, but I was the spy, not my parents. I wanted to capture the “candid comment” and weave it together with others to form aural art. I would venture to say it was one of my ideas that went nowhere.
Remembering, too, old reel-to-reels, in a time period when they were as big as a printer (15×15 inches), but clumsy. That has changed! Recording devices are now as small as a pen. As children we were startled by our own voices — that — while sounding familiar to another listener, didn’t sound at all familiar to the speaker. That strange feeling hasn’t changed.
And — there was a little of the espionage to it, too, as my father found that he could set the machine to stop-record at the sound of an entering voice.
“That’s not right,” we complained. Our voiced secrets as the (child) peasants of the manor were under investigation! We were being spied on! We were suspect!
Maybe times have not changed there, either.