Treasure Chest Thursday: Voices from the Past

A cassette tape isn’t the most elegant heirloom — not in the same league as an Art Deco brooch, for sure.

Still, among the most precious items in my family history treasure chest are two audio tapes. Made more than two decades apart with two different voices, they don’t have a lot in common. Except that each is an irreplaceable record of a voice from the past.

The first tape was probably made sometime in the 1970s and features singing by my father, who died in 1983. It’s a mix of Irish-tenor classics, including “Danny Boy.” Dad had a great voice, and I’m sure he had a blast performing for posterity. About ten years after my father died, it was given by a dental-school classmate of his to one of my cousins, who passed it on to us, and copies were made for all seven of my dad’s children.

For ten years after that, I never listened to it. I would start to play it, then stop. I can’t tell you why. After all, one of the saddest moments in grieving a loved one is the point at which you realize you no longer remember exactly how their voice sounded — it’s like losing them all over again. And here I was with my father’s voice on tape, not able to push the Play button. Maybe I was afraid that somehow his voice wouldn’t sound as wonderful as I remembered.

Anyway, on to the second tape. This one is of my father-in-law; it was made by my husband a few years before his father died, of a conversation they had together about my father-in-law’s boyhood. This tape became very important even before my father-in-law actually passed, because not long after it was made, he suffered a stroke that affected his speech — not 100 percent, but enough so that detailed conversations were difficult. I recently rediscovered the tape when I found it in a box of odds and ends  my kids had tossed together and decided to claim for their own. It is now rescued and marked: Do Not Touch On Pain of Death.

You may be wondering whether I ever did listen to Tape No. 1. The answer is yes — after my father-in-law died, and my mother-in-law asked me if I would sing “Danny Boy” at his memorial service.

Of course I thought about the tape. I also thought about how my dad owned “Danny Boy” in our family, and what he’d think about me singing it — he was particular about getting it right. And I thought that probably now was the time to listen to the tape, to get a couple of pointers from the master so I could do my best for my mother-in-law.

So yes, I finally listened to the tape. And my dad sounded just as good as I remembered. He still owns “Danny Boy.” Although I must say, my version isn’t too shabby, either.


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