Friday, March 14, 2014

Seven Pounds of Cassette Tapes

There was a time, back in the quasi-medieval gloom of the twentieth century, when cassette tape players were cool.  If you were used to carefully threading reel-to-reel tape only to have it snap and strike you in the face like a cobra, the click of the cassette into the player, the thunk of the "play" button followed by music seemed as miraculous as getting water from a faucet versus fetching it from a well.

A technologically-inclined college boyfriend of mine was so enamored of cassette players that when he was away at his summer job he used to send me tapes instead of letters.  After I married, I learned that my new husband's grandfather was as fond of the little machines as my old boyfriend had been.  He used them to record family phone conversations, no matter how trivial.  If we called to let him know at what time we would arrive at his house, t we would hear the click that told us were being recorded for posterity.

And that is why, cleaning out a closet the other day, I came upon a bag containing seven pounds (yes, I weighed it) of cassette tapes. Seven pounds of forty-year-old conversations.  Seven pounds of baby babble.  Seven pounds of voices that will never speak again. 

There's me, sounding like a have a cold, interrupting the conversation to tell my toddler not to pick up the clock, please!  There's a three-year-old telling her grandparents that she just got new shoes.  There's me again, calling from the maternity ward to say I need my watch so I can time how long the baby nurses on each side...

I know what's in those tapes because one night around Christmas, after my mother in law died and the tapes were shipped to us, we sat around with our grown children and played a few of them.  And then for the decade that followed they sat in the closet, untouched.

Our present house has ten closets.  The cottage we are moving to has four--and no attic, no basement, no outbuildings.  No place to hold and hide the flotsam and jetsam of our long lives until it falls to someone else to find and deal with it.  But the shift from ten closets to four is forcing me to do something about those seven pounds of tapes, tout de suite.

When paper was scarce, not so very long ago, all that might remain of a grandmother's correspondence was a packet of yellowed letters bound in ribbon.  Before photographs became ubiquitous, you were lucky if your ancestors, if they were people of means, handed down a painted portrait or two.  But now the past, or at least the material evidence of the past, is always with us, demanding to be recaptured, relived, revered--and threatening to crush us with its weight.

I must confess to chafing under this accumulation of letters, photos, dry cleaners' bills, bits of lace, broken earrings--all of which meant something to someone at some time.  Why should I bear the moral weight of deciding what to keep and what to throw out?  Why should I have to grit my teeth and do what the previous generation was too soft-hearted to do?


I believe that the parents and grandparents who saved the things I find in our closets these days--a maternity ward receipt for my spouse's circumcision ($3.00), an embroidered hankie, the seven pounds of cassette tapes--were prompted by love for us, their descendants.  And it is a different expression of love, but one just as strong--love for those who will come after me and who should be spared from disposing of the relics of my past--that keeps me sadly but methodically making these objects vanish from our lives.

6 comments :

  1. I come from a long line of "savers" on one side of my family, so I know what you mean about bearing both the metaphorical and the physical weight of the accumulated memorabilia. Having faced the chore of clearing and sorting more than one person's overloaded household, I can appreciate the desire to spare one's children that.

    However, I am also the family historian, and I prize letters, papers, and heirlooms that tell me more about my ancestors than the simple, dry data of birth, death, and census records. It may not be your children who would be interested in what's on those tapes, but maybe a great-grandchild historian, to whom the minutia of mid-twentieth century conversation would be a goldmine. Think how interesting it would be to hear a conversation from a hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago. Think how we prize reading a pioneer or civil war diary, especially one from our own family.

    One thing the 21st century has brought us is the ability to store such things without taking up the room that 7 pounds of cassette tapes do. Why not transfer the conversations to CD or MP3? If you don't want to take the time or don't have the equipment, there are services that will do it for you. That way, you can be kind to both those who clean out your estate and to some unknown future family historian.

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  2. Clearly, you are the voice of experience in this. We need someone like you in OUR family!

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  3. I have tons of letters saved. I also have countless VHS tapes of "Columbo" episodes my Grandma on my Mom's side made. She was a big fan of whoddunnits'.

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  4. I desperately need to do a purge. The chore itself gives me a panic attack. Not doing it also gives me a panic attack.

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  5. Now you know precisely my state of mind.

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