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Safe Stories

In early 2003, I had a random burst of inspiration – really, I’m still not sure where the idea or the sense of urgency came from. But I wrote out a long list of questions for my then-83-year-old paternal grandfather, and I gave him a small, hand-held tape recorder. I showed him how to use it (it took three tries, as I recall), and I asked him to get to work making a recording of all his memories.

He was a little overwhelmed at the size of the project, but I gave him some prompts. I asked him to talk about growing up as the son of a sharecropper during the Depression. I asked him to reminisce about World War II. I wanted to hear – again – the story of how he met my grandmother.

He loved it. His life had been a little lonely since my grandmother died years before, and sitting in his old recliner, his memories lined up in front of him, proved to be a meaningful journey for him.

The recording, of course, is a treasure. My grandfather was a real cut-up and jokester, and these recordings are a reflection of that. He began, characteristically, with a wisecrack:

A preponderance of the evidence would indicate that I was born.

He went on to talk about growing up in rural Arkansas, using a little wagon to help his parents pick cotton. He told about their home:

There was a fairly decent piece of [farm] property. Of course, again, we didn’t have running water, we didn’t have central heat, we didn’t have electricity. We used what we called coal oil lamps; however, it didn’t occur to me … well, we weren’t any different from anyone else in that area.

He talked about his first school:

I started to school when we lived at that place. And the little school was a little one-room, frame school building, about, oh, probably a mile or maybe a mile and a half from the house. And, like Abraham Lincoln I walked to school. Of course, Abraham did some things that I wasn’t able to do, like be President, and so forth.

My grandfather may not have been President, but he lived a life that was heroic in its ordinary-ness. He went on in the recording to talk about fighting a war, starting a business, and raising two sons. He talked about his grandchildren. He talked about decades of good friends. He reminisced about my grandmother:

I guess I have one achievement. And gosh, I’m proud of it, because I worked on this project. And that was marrying, I suppose, the only woman in the world who could’ve put up with me for 53 years.

He wrapped up the recording by talking about his family, both immediate and extended, and how much they’ve meant to him. He paused to explain that he needed to “put my teeth in so I can talk.” There is a clicking sound (teeth going in, I can only presume?) and his voice suddenly becomes very serious in closing:

Now, poetry is a wonderful thing. Have your grandkids commit to memory this little gem of poetry. Poetry stirs the hearts of man.
You place your arm around your girl’s waist.
You hold her close in fond embrace.

Then lip to lip, and gum to gum,

You close your smacker, yum-yum-yum.

That’s the end of the recording. To call it a treasure would be a vast understatement.

Less than six months after this recording was made, my grandfather died, with his kids at his bedside. Thankfully, his stories – and his voice – didn’t die with him that day. These tapes sat untouched in my filing cabinet for years, but this month, my husband helped me burn the audio to CD. At Thanksgiving, we gave a copy to every member of our family. We labeled the CDs well, so that maybe (hopefully) some future descendent will find it, and hear it, and learn a little about this man who loved to make people laugh.

This recording is so dear to me that I think with sadness of the ancestors whose stories I don’t have. What I wouldn’t give to hear about their lives. My maternal grandmother is 81 years old, and thankfully, she is still with us. This week I’m giving her a tape recorder.

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