For months after he died — of lung cancer, twenty-three years ago — I could dial my parents’ phone number and hear my dad’s voice on the answering machine: “You have reached 429–4518. This is Not. Fred’s. Tire.” Then the answering machine broke, and my brother replaced it with voice mail and that bit of my dad was lost. There are a few home movies remaining, but they are all VHS and if I don’t get them converted to DVD or parked somewhere in the Cloud, they will go the same way. Technological dodos, carrying precious voices into the inky silence of the tar pits.
My mother passed away just recently. She was eighty-eight. Every Sunday afternoon for the last year or so, my brother set up his iPad in her room, so Mom and I could FaceTime across the hundreds of miles that separated us. It wasn’t just that she could see my face in these chats that made the difference. My brother gave her headphones so she could clearly hear me, something she could no longer do in a simple phone call. Our conversations were cheery and comfortably similar week-to-week. We compared our respective weather situations. I updated her on my family. In winter, we added the Minnesota Vikings to the conversational mix. This always included laughing remembrances of my dad loudly watching them play on TV: “Tackle the sonofabitch!” At the end of every chat, she would give me the same smile and say “I love you, dear. Buh-bye!” Writing those words, I hear her voice…but I don’t have a recording of it anywhere.
As my husband and I went through thirty-five years of stuff in preparation for downsizing and a cross-country move, I was faced with boxes and boxes of our children’s school pictures, yearbooks, soccer trophies, scholastic ribbons, artwork, report cards, theater programs, band competitions, plaques, pins, posters…and I was struck by how few voices were captured from any of these sacred moments. There was a DVD of a half-time marching band show, but I could barely see Adam, let alone pick out the sound of his mellophone and there was certainly no voice. A show choir performance, with Luke’s beautiful tenor one of many. A soccer game we had taped: was that Kate yelling “man on!” or one of the ten other girls on the field? Hard to say.
But a few years ago, when he was away at college, our youngest child made me a “mixtape” — a CD of carefully curated songs about mothers and sons and family. It includes an opening track of greeting from him and a final track of him reading aloud a children’s book called “I’ll Love You Forever.” It’s the best thing he’s ever given me. When I tell him how happy I am to have this, he reminds me that I can always go to Spotify and hear him sing with Trashbag Ponchos, his folk-punk band. This is true, but there is something about the spoken word — particularly when the words are spoken to you — that flies straight to the heart.
That’s partly why every Christmas for the last thirty-some years, I have recorded a book-on-tape for my husband. They were originally literally on tape: sometimes ten or fifteen cassette tapes for a book, nestled in a shoebox, now on a shelf in his closet. When voice recording software became available, I hooked up a microphone to my computer to do the recording, then burned the files onto CDs, slipped into plastic sleeves in zip-up vinyl cases, also on a shelf in his closet. Should I be the first to ‘move to Tahiti,’ he will have no shortage of options for hearing my voice again.
Back in 2004, we fell into another Christmas tradition: just before toddling off to bed on Christmas Eve, we’d all snuggle up on the couch around my husband while he read aloud (it’s a Glassman Thing) Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Polar Express” — complete with silver bell. Into their 20s and 30s, any kid who made it home for Christmas would absolutely be there on the couch for a story that none of them really cared about all that much anymore, just for the Tradition and the sound of their father’s voice. Last year was our first Christmas in Arizona, and when it was clear no child would be able to come for it, my husband spent a couple of hours in his study recording himself reading it — complete with silver bell. Each child got a copy in time for their own Christmas Eve, hundreds of miles away. I have a copy, too. Should he be the first to ‘move to Tahiti,’ I will always be able to listen to him urging me to hear the silver bell and to “truly believe.”
Our voices are powerful. They can encourage and inspire. They can educate and entertain. Like anything of power, they can also be weaponized. They can wound and humiliate. They can turn us against one another. Maybe that’s the real reason so many people list public speaking as their number one fear: we know in our heart of hearts that the spoken word has weight and consequence. Words we might easily write anonymously become something we must own when we speak them aloud.
Helen Keller famously remarked that her deafness was a greater sorrow to her than her blindness. I can believe that. I have many photos of my dad. I have a Pendleton shirt of his that I swear still smells a little bit like him. But I’d give a lot to hear him say, just one more time, “This is Not. Fred’s. Tire.”