I have 15 cassette tapes and they've been neatly stacked on top of my dresser for years. There are tapes from radio shows I did in college, from concerts that I gave on campus, and even a demo tape I made when I first moved to Minneapolis. Mixed in with those, there are tapes my mother and I exchanged in 1988, during during my first months at Grinnell College. I have been vaguely and intermittently aware of these tapes but they weren't part of my everyday thoughts and blurred with the others until they were simply My Pile of Tapes. But one day recently, I thought of those tapes from my mother and felt a sense of urgency to listen to them. I ran down to the basement to get our old tape player and ran back upstairs, plugged it in and put the first tape inside and pushed play. It didn't work. I called one friend and then another--one could bring me an old Walkman the following day, one had a cassette player in her basement but found it didn't work either. I then I realized that Zeca had a CD/Tape player in her room and I grabbed that one and brought it into my room and put the tape in and pushed play again. Nothing. I texted Luisa who was at a meeting and she thought she might still have her Walkman and I briefly considered running out to by a cassette player or a digital converter.
I needed to listen to the tapes immediately but I waited.
When Luisa got home, she realized that she didn't have her Walkman anymore but she looked at Zeca's tape player and realized that I had both the play and pause buttons pushed down. It turns out that I had forgotten how to use a tape player. She released the pause button and suddenly, my mother's voice filled my ears, "I miss you so much and I hope you're doing ok up there."
The tapes are 27 years old but her voice sounded just as I remember it. She told me about going to the State Fair and things they'd done to the house. She talked about the weather and told me she was getting over pneumonia. She was charming and funny which I expected but I was surprised because she also sounded like a mother. I know that's an odd thing to say but my mother was never one to encourage or nurture. Good behavior and success was expected. We never talked about feelings or things that were hard. That was not how we related to each other. But that tape showed a different side to my mother, one I'd forgotten. Maybe she could say things on a tape that she could never say to me face to face or on the phone, things like, "I miss you," and "I love you," and "I have faith in you." The first tape ends with my mother saying, "Not a day goes by I don't think of about you. You just hang in there, work hard, have fun, and just be bold." I burst into tears because of the beauty and love in those words, because it felt like she was sending me a present day message too but also because the sentiment was so inconsistent with the kind of mother she was. Even now, a few weeks later, I am confused and wonder what I have right and wrong about the past.
I listened to the first tape I sent her and can hardly believe I was ever that young--an 18 year old girl with a southern twang that has long since faded, telling her mother about parties and dances and opening a checking account for the first time.
I haven't listened to the rest though I'm not sure why the urgency has passed. Maybe it was enough to hear the voice of the woman who played both hero and villain in my life. Maybe it's too hard or weird or creepy to listen to the words of a woman who has been dead for six years. Or maybe on some level, I want those words to be her last, a reminder I didn't even know I needed--work hard, have fun, be bold.