Mother's Day, Belated
A number of years ago, which easily could have been 15, I happened upon a cassette tape. It was there in a cardboard box among several hundred printed photos, device power cords with plug shapes I didn’t recognize, and an empty Pee Chee folder. But the cassette caught my eye. Stumbling onto this vestige of technology from a previous century seemed the domestic equivalent of spotting an arrowhead in the brush.
It was a Craig C-60, and so there would be no confusion, the label stipulated what you were getting: “60 Minute Cassette (30 min per side).” I suppose in an era in which data storage didn’t seem infinite as it does now, it wasn’t so outlandish to make it clear you weren’t getting 60 minutes per side.
Also scratched on the label in ball point pen—another gizmo from a previous century first patented in 1888 by John Loud, then improved upon and patented in 1945 by Laszlo Biro—was the word, “MOM,” clearly written in MOM’s handwriting. The tape was a recorded letter from her sent to me on my birthday in 1980. At the time, she was 47, a nurse, living alone in a tiny African village—Salima, Malawi—working for the Peace Corps and doing whatever she could to improve public health there. Early on, she figured out that the root cause of most health issues there was a lack of clean water. So, much of her time was spent building wells and educating the locals about its value.
I had listened to the letter when I received it in 1980, but not since. It had traveled with me over the years: to college, various apartments and storage units, graduate school, a couple river guide houses, then different real houses as family life evolved. My mom had died in 1996, but her cassette carried on its life. Every time I packed up to move, there it was. But when I finally decided that I should listen to it again, tape players were nowhere in sight. Compact discs had taken their place, which had then been made obsolete by MP3 players (iPods), which, in turn, gave way to streaming systems—technology’s progenitor cannibalism at work.
With time to kill one day last year, I wandered into a second-hand store in Boise, Idaho. There, for $10, was a GE cassette player. My plan was to play the tape while recording with my computer, thereby preserving her audio letter forever, at least until computers become obsolete. However, reacquainting myself with a cassette player, the first thing I did was break the tape, a Mylar strip barely fifteen-thousandths of an inch thick and an eighth of an inch wide.
After my dad died, which was a few years prior to my mom dying, I remember having an almost Pavlovian response every time I was stumped by something: broken garbage disposal, leaky sprinkler system, tax question, it didn’t matter what. I would get up (the days when phones were attached to the wall) to call my dad—he would know. Halfway to the phone, I’d realize he wouldn’t be answering. This went on for a year or more. Perhaps a bittersweet fact, but all those dad questions are now answered by Mr. Google, including how to fix a broken cassette tape, which involves a tiny screwdriver, Scotch tape, steady hands, and a good deal of patience. I had two of the four, which eventually proved to be enough. I pushed play on the GE, hit record on my MacBook and left the room. Thirty minutes later, I flipped the tape and went for a run.
Albeit a defunct technology, tape recorders are ingenious little devices. Sounds—nothing more than vibrations in air—are converted into electrical signals that reflect the frequency and amplitude (pitch and volume) of a given sound. The electrical signal is then converted to a magnetic one. When a tape coated with tiny magnetic particles is run by that magnetic signal, the tiny magnets align according to the signal and “store” the pitch and volume at any given moment. To play the sound, the process is reversed. It is nothing short of miraculous and now barely a footnote in the history of technology.
So, Mother’s Day 2021, 41 years after I received the tape, 25 years after my mother had died, and one year after I had finally converted it to a digital file, I listened to MOM, side one and two.
It is startling to hear your mother’s voice after not hearing it for all those years. But here she was, on Mother’s Day no less, talking to me. Magically, those little magnetic particles had unfurled themselves, come to life in the room, as real as anything around me.
She told me about the little nuances of her day, Sept. 15, 1980; how she and her friend, Mr. Bomberi, had been tanning a goat hide but that something was amiss with the recipe. They had earlier worked on building a mud stove together. She told me that every day when she returned from working in the villages, eight or nine small children greeted her on the dirt road. It was the same exact exchange each day. “Good evening, sir, how are you?” they asked my mom in chorus. “I am fine, how are you?” she said. First one, then all responded, “I am super!” and followed her down the road to her house. She reported that she drank Coke three times a day because when you were out in the villages you could never know about the water. Each Coke was five cents. For a little extra money, you could get a “sandwich,” which comprised bread and margarine. Gin, with which she made her nightly Gibson, was $2 for a half-quart. Occasionally, she travelled to Lilongwe to visit other ex-pats for a meal and conversation. And each morning, on a cheap little AM/FM radio, she liked to listen to Voice of America. One particular morning and the only time in two years, she picked up a live broadcast of the San Francisco Giants playing the Philadelphia Phillies. My mom loved the Giants, loved baseball, used to be the scorekeeper for our Little League games, fluent in the curious code of baseball scoring. Telling me about the Phillies game—“a good one” as she said—how could she know that years later my last sweet memory of her would be of her curled up in bed, reeling from cancer, but joyfully listening to the soothing sound of Lon Simmons calling a Giants game?
The recording ebbed toward the 60-minute mark. I started to get nervous as it ticked down, wanting more, wondering how she was going to say goodbye. But she seemed oblivious to the limits of the Craig-C60 and started to tell me another story, this one about making friends with the local witch doctor. Then, oddly, there was another voice on the recording, a child’s voice. Was this one of her neighbor children? I played it again; this time I could hear it. It was my youngest daughter, a two-year-old, babbling on with witticisms as she does, seemingly trying to get my mom’s attention as she went on about her last visit with the medicine man. For the briefest of moments, I was fooled—they were there, in the same place, same time, same life. My breath held for a beat. Then I knew—my fumbling with two technologies three times-removed had accidentally made the impossible happen. For a shining moment, my mother and daughter—separated by great time and place, even death—were now together.
Then the recording clicked off.