Voices from the Past

I have been immersed in the past.  The cassette tapes you see above are only a fraction of those from years past that I been recently trying to record into the computer for posterity.

I wonder sometimes how archeologists and historians stay focused in the present when so much of their life is dedicated to uncovering the past.  I'm having just as hard a time remembering that it's 2011, I'm 56 years old, with a 64-year-old husband, 2 kids, 3 grandchildren, working as a medical transcriptionist, living on a dirt road in the state of Maine.  It can't be!  Why, I'm really an adolescent talking about our vacation trip to Florida....no, wait, I'm 15 months old being coached in words by my dad....no, sorry, I'm at a family Thanksgiving meal in 1973....  You see my predicament?

My dad, as well as being an ardent creator of home movies, was a fan of the reel-to-reel tapes, and later, cassettes.  He would record everything and anything.  He consistently recorded his beloved choir that he directed, and we have many, many recordings of church services at Easter and Christmas and everything in between.  In addition, after every family vacation trip, sister Joy and I would sit down with Dad in the den, recorder running, and reminisce about the trip from the minute we left Memphis to the minute we got home.  (Mom was usually cooking or washing dishes, but occasionally would stick her head in and contribute to the conversation).  Dad kept detailed records, noting the time we left home as 6:21 a.m., for instance.  Here's a sample conversation from a trip to Florida:

Dad:  "Friday morning we left Perry about 7:00 in the morning, had breakfast down at a truck stop on the way to Tallahassee, and we saw this grove of whatever it was, avocados (looked like green lemons), and...."
Joy:  "And Mama said 'avocados!'"
Dad:  "...It was the color of avocados."
Joy: "And we stopped and we picked up a couple and waved them in the air while we got our pictures taken.   Daddy was going to buy sone pecans, but the man said they weren't good..."
Dad: "...Yes, the man was honest and said if they were any good, he wouldn't be selling them!"
[at this point, extended period of hearty laughter from all present.]
Joy: "Well we tried to find the oranges, and Carol asked the man, 'What is that?' and he said, 'That's tung oil!  Better not get it in your mouth, it's poison!' so we threw it down and Mama said, 'Look!  Pecan trees and peach trees!'"
[again, laughter at the thought of Mama thinking tung oil nut was a pecan or peach]
Dad: "...OK, so Mama doesn't know much about growing things except flowers and grass, maybe..."

Ah, those were good times.  We always have the home movies from the trip, but there's nothing like hearing our young excited voices remembering how much fun we had, Dad with his details (he demanded we do this chronologically!) and, especially the sound of uncontrolled laughter at our antics.

The next tape is of me when I was a toddler.  Dad thought he'd record my vocabulary progress, and I apparently dutifully consented, in between playing with a doll and getting up and down from a chair.
Dad: "It's Thursday, January 19, 1956, Carol is almost 16 months old, and we'll see if she can go through a little of her repertoire for us.  [to me:] "Talk to us.  Can you say Mama? Let's hear you say Mama. "
[I sneeze twice, then say Mama.]
"That's good!  What else?  Can you say Daddy?"
I say Daddy.
"That good!  Can you say bird?"
How about...can you say apple?
We went through chair, ball, Paw-Paw, diaper, tea, water, bread.  Then:
"Is your name Carol Jeanette Tiffin and do you live at 435 Josephine?"
I replied, "Yes," and he said, "Yes! That's right!"
Dad always used his quiet, encouraging little voice. He didn't believe in baby talk.  He always talked to us as if we were older and as if we could understand everything he said.

Joy would later graciously transfer several of these reel-to-reel tapes onto cassette tapes, and now I am transferring them to digital recordings, just as we had taken the reel home movies and transferred them to VHS and then DVD.

Fast forward to 1973.  Reel-to-reel was archaic, and technology had changed to cassette tapes, so we would frequently just turn on the tape player while we were having a holiday meal.  The first thing you hear is Joy's voice, "Anybody else need anything?" - always the hostess.  Then various sounds of silverware on dishes, clanking, general noises of a meal, and then all of a sudden, you hear a xylophone.  Well, it sounds like a xylophone, but I'll let you in on a secret - It's Paw-Paw, my grandfather, hitting glasses with a spoon to play a tune.  He loved trying out his talent on glasses which were partially filled with liquid to varying levels.  Then my mom says to me, "I want you to play something for Paw-Paw.  He hasn't heard you play in so long, it's pitiful."  Paw-Paw says, "Sure!" so I know right after the meal I would head to the piano to perform for my Paw-Paw, who had mastered piano playing by ear and who was always so proud of Joy and me as we followed in his musical footsteps.

These are just a sample of what I am reliving this week.  It's a very cathartic experience, and a deeply satisfying one.  I sigh a lot.  I had such a wonderful childhood.  In a way, it disturbs Ed, though.  He thinks I may be trying to escape into the past because I prefer that life to my present one with him.  Of course, that's not the case, as I love my present life, but it made me think.  What is it about the past that I find so comforting?  When we're kids, those days are called "carefree" because they were - CARE-FREE.  We didn't worry about bills or income or taxes, we didn't worry about food prices or gas prices or if we had the capability of taking care of the older ones in the family.  We didn't worry about our kids or grandkids or how we could afford a new washing machine or any of that stuff.  We were young, naive, innocent, in a home filled with love where other people did all the worrying and fretting.  It was not a life preferable to my present one - but it was in its own way a time and place that deserves honor and remembering.

We once had a 104-year-old parishioner who couldn't remember what she had for breakfast that day but could recite with clarity and accuracy songs she learned when she was 5.  Sometimes it seems that the older we get, the more we tend to live in the past.  Well, if our lives were a pie chart, the past would represent most of it at this point, wouldn't it?  I listen and try to remember that little toddler learning her words, the adolescent on vacation, the 19-year-old at Thanksgiving (in less than a year I would be married).  I close my eyes and try to remember.

As we are getting ready next week to drive to Memphis and bring Mother and her dog up here to Maine to live with us, I am also reminded that these recordings are poignant not only because of who I was back then, but who everyone else was.  Dad died in 1980, Paw-Paw died in 1983, and Mother, who used to cook and clean, bustling around the kitchen to make sure everyone ate well, is now dependent on a walker and someone else cooks for her and makes sure she eats well.  Life is change, and change eventually comes full circle.

But still I remember.