One of the things that’s surprised me about writing this blog is how much looking back I do. Like, far back. Way far back. Given that I always planned to tell travel stories, I knew I’d be sharing memories, of course. But for the most part, that’s only the last ten years or so. Diving into my Quote Book took me back maybe another ten years before that, but even that is less than half my lifetime ago.
Today’s article goes back way, way further than that.
It all started with my Memory Trunk. It’s an old steamer trunk I have that belonged to my father. It sat, unused and untouched, in the basement of the house where I grew up, but I remember my father, who was a Mountie, once telling me that he had to be able to “pack my whole life into it” when he was transferred from posting to posting.
When I moved out, I asked if I could take it with me and was told yes. I don’t know if what my father said stuck in my subconscious, or if it’s just a coincidence, but I started to fill it with memorabilia from my life, and christened it the Memory Trunk.
I use it as a nightstand now, and haven’t added anything to it for ages. But it contains a metric fuckton of stuff from the first 25 or so years of my life – cards and letters and silly little gifts from friends, my high school band uniform and yearbooks, sheet music for instruments I no longer play, the dress I wore as flower girl at my cousin’s wedding. And hundreds, if not thousands, of old pop culture newspaper and magazine clippings.
Those are in a couple of manila envelopes that I hadn’t opened since I was a teenager – sort of a time capsule within a time capsule, if you will. But a few months back, when I wrote a series of Star Wars articles for May the Fourth, I broke into those envelopes, and found something extraordinary.
That’s a letter from my grandfather, my mother’s father, and I call it extraordinary because that’s exactly what it is, in many, many ways. I had no idea I had it. Indeed, I have no memory of it at all. It’s old – based on the reference to my mother volunteering at my school, it has to be from the ’70s, when I was single digits in age. It’s in fantastic condition, too, the paper still soft and the ink clear.
But the most incredible thing of all to me is that it’s an honest-to-goodness handwritten note. Grandad was right-hand dominant, but had been permanently disabled during his birth due to the use of forceps. They damaged his right hand, which was rendered lax and barely usable. He spent his entire life functioning left-handed, against his body’s natural inclination. Writing was difficult for him. In fact, he and my mother used to exchange letters via old reel-to-reel tape recorders to save him the difficulty of writing.
And yet, I meant enough to him to make the effort to send me a personal note. Not a “Say hello to Donna” on one of my mother’s tapes, but something that was only for me. (Please excuse me while I tear up just a little bit.)
I don’t remember Grandad all that well. I think I was 19 when he died, and it had been a few years before that since I’d seen him. He lived in Manitoba, and my family was in Ontario, and once he reached a certain age, it was simply too difficult for him to travel to visit us. My mother would visit him several times a year, and I went with her a couple of times, but a little town in northern Manitoba was boring to pre- and early-teen me. So for the most part, my vague memories of him stem from the ’70s, when he used to come visit us.
I remember he was a very kind and gentle man. I remember the smell of his shaving cream. I remember the soft feel of his wrinkled skin as we walked hand-in-hand. I remember his smile the time he asked if I’d like to walk to the post office with him, and I said no, then changed my mind and went racing down the street after him, and he heard my footfalls and turned to see me running towards him.
And I remember the day my mother took this picture of us.
But I don’t remember his voice. I’ve been kicking myself for years for not asking my mother if I could have that reel-to-reel tape recorder. In and of itself, it was a fantastic piece of technology. Then there’s the sentimental value. I loved it when I was a kid. I played with it for hours, recording radio shows and making mix tapes. I even used to hold the microphone against my chest and record my heartbeat.
Most of all, though, I’m certain that at least one of those old tapes would have contained Grandad’s voice.
So yeah, I wish I’d snagged it when I could.
But now the edge of that regret is softened a bit. Because while this note may not be Grandad’s voice in the strictest sense, in an abstract way, it is. They’re his words, on paper that he touched, with ink from a pen that he held.
In its own way, it’s more tangible than a voice on a tape could ever be.