My Mother’s Voice

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I got a tape recorder from my parents.  It was a cassette recorder with a little flip up plastic top and an external mic, something similar to this:

I loved that thing…I even took it to bed with me the first night and recorded myself until I fell asleep!  I don’t know why my parents bought it for me or even what the occasion was, but it was the beginning of a whole new world.  I got another tape recorder when I was 15, and eventually I moved up to a reel-to-reel 8 track, then a 24-track, and now I have a digital studio where I’ve recorded many projects.  I wonder if I would have had the ambition or drive to get into recording if it wasn’t for that first little tape deck.

I have a couple of old cassettes from the first years with my tape deck that I never got rid of.  My daughters discovered them when they were in elementary school, and loved being able to hear their mother talking at the same age they were and fooling around, recording my friends and my songs.  And my parents.

Recently, I realized that with both my parents now gone, it might be a good idea to preserve those tapes, so as part of my “staycation” I decided that it would be one of my projects.  Preserving memories in various ways are the kind of  tasks we often have at the back of our minds, only rarely making the time to actually get them done.  So I happily pulled them out (thank goodness I knew where they were!) and set about recording them in digital format on my computer.

First I had to locate a tape deck.  Who has those anymore?  I knew that there was one around somewhere and it took me a half-hour digging around in the basement, but I finally found it.  I hooked everything up and put the tape in and excitedly hit the “play” button.  Nope.  The cassette was so old (45 years or so?) that it wouldn’t roll properly and I nearly ruined the thing trying to make it play.  I tried again and again, and finally, the tiny tape got all tangled onto a little reel inside the deck and it took me another half-hour just to unravel it.  It was a mess.  I was beginning to wonder if I should perhaps find someone else more experienced to do the task, so I went online and started Googling ‘cassette tape restoration’ and any other query I could think of.

Finally I found a messageboard where someone had suggested that you could transfer the tape itself from one cassette casing to another.  Maybe it was the casing that was the issue and not the actual tape.  I had a few newer cassettes around, so I took the old cassette apart first:

Then I took apart the newer one and painstakingly tried to put the older tape inside of the newer case.

Stupidly, I didn’t check first to see how the tape fit in properly, so I took apart yet ANOTHER case, just to see that.  Eventually, I got the old tape into the new casing and screwed it all together.  I took a deep breath, put it in the cassette deck and hit play.

It still took a few rolls, stops and starts before the old tape began to roll more smoothly.  And then I had the delight of listening to myself, my parents, my Aunt May when she came to visit us from Denmark, my friends, and even my little budgie Blueboy chirping away in the background.  I laughed, I cringed, I reminisced.

When I got to the end of the tape, it promptly broke, and in order to listen to the other side, I had to spice it back together with scotch tape.

I flipped it over and held my breath again.  Phew…it worked.

I have video of my Dad because he lived a lot longer than my mother who died before video cameras were invented, so all I have are old pictures of her.  And now I have her voice.  At one point, the three of us and my friend sing a Danish lullaby.  My mother decides to do a high harmony and she is beautifully pitch perfect.  What a wonderful thing to have in my possession and to pass on to my daughters;  the sound of my mother’s, their grandmother’s voice.


Rags To Kitchens Part 2

(Part 1 of this series is here.  This 2nd instalment of the series was written 2 weeks ago, but I forgot to post it!  Shows what a fog I’m in about all of this.)

It’s really all too much.  I mean, how do you choose, how do you know what you’re going to be happy living with for the next 10 years?

Sorry, I’m not talking major life event…I’m talking the next chapter of our kitchen renos. We put the thing on hold for a few weeks because of other events, but a couple of weeks ago, Amy came by and brought out some samples.  Wood, counter tops, colours, textures, quartz or laminate;  too many to choose from!

We also went to a few places on our own to look at floors, back splashes, paint colours.  And kitchen appliances;  should we buy new ones or are we good with the old ones?  OMG.  We have no idea what to decide.  And then the first estimate came in.  OMG again.  It is going to cost a small fortune.  I guess we kind of knew that, but when you look at the cold, hard numbers, reality slaps you in the face.

Should we go dark on the floors, light on the cupboards, dark on the counter tops?  Should we go light on the floors, dark…well, you see what I mean.

One of the things we definitely decided on was to not change too much about the shape of the kitchen…one option we were presented with was to tear down a couple of walls and open one door way into the dining room to almost twice the width.  We opted to keep it more or less the way it is, not only saving money, but.  Well, yeah, saving money.

Fortunately for us, Amy is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to what choices work best with each other.  There is so much we would not have understood, such as how the type of flooring you choose can affect when you put it in, either before or after the cabinets are installed.  This texture works with that one, but these two will fight each other.  Decide on one thing you really like (ie counter top or flooring) and then build around that.  Take inventory of what you have so you can choose which types of special additions you might need for them.  For instance, I didn’t know you can have a special, slotted shelf for cookie sheets!  Who’d a thunk it?

To the left is the floor plan of the kitchen.  It’s pretty straight-forward, but of course it’s an old house, built in 1944, so everything has to be custom built in order to fit.  Right now, the stove and fridge are right beside each other, but the stove will be moved to the south wall.  You can see the stove where it will eventually go, on the top of the diagram.  That means installing a vent too, which will be another expense, on top of the electrical stuff needed to install lights under the cupboards.  Right now in the bottom right corner of the diagram there is an old pantry which will be demolished and give us more counter space and cupboard space below.  And on each side of, and above the fridge we will have more cupboard space too.

The nook, which is at the bottom of the diagram, will be re-purposed for more counter and cupboard space.  And we will have a moveable island, just a small one, that will sit in the nook area when not in use.  I like the idea of a little island to pull into the middle of the kitchen when we do our gingerbread cookies!

This photo is more or less the way the kitchen looks now with the sink and windows on the left side.  The only thing that is different is that we changed the counter top laminate to a black one.

This next photo is a rendering of what it will look like with the new design, the stove moved to the centre of that wall and the counters deeper and cupboards higher and taller:

We have been back an forth to a few places to try to come up with back splash ideas, flooring ideas and the rest of it, but it is so utterly overwhelming.  Aaarrrghhh!

I’m okay now.

Has Brown Feathers, Says “Cluck”

Because it has recently become legal to do so, a few people in our neighbourhood have started backyard chicken coops in the past couple of years.  I see two or three coops when I’m out for my walk, and occasionally hear the feathered residents clucking away as I pass by. One morning, I watched as a small group of daycare toddlers were brought over to a wire fence by their adult caretakers to see the chickens for the first time.  It was endlessly fascinating for them.  What a cool thing for kids to see in their own neighbourhood, rather than having to go to an actual farm, farther away.

So I had to laugh the other day when on my walk I came across the sign to the left.  Lost cat and dog posters abound, but this is the first time I’d ever seen a lost chicken poster. It was stapled on a wood post near the coop the toddlers had visited, and I had to admit as I walked on that I kept my eyes open for the escape artist.  Where would a sneaky chicken hide?  How would it eat?  How long could it possibly last out there in the big, bad world?

What’s even more interesting is that not only is the date specified, but the actual time.  4pm.  The owner must have actually witnessed the escape.  Maybe a door was left open and the escape happened before the owner could do anything.  Did he or she actually chase the chicken?  How fast can a chicken run?  I Googled that question and the answer was anywhere between 9 and 15 mph.  If the chicken got a head start and disappeared in some bushes, I guess it would be easy enough to lose it.

Chickens can’t fly very well, but their ancestors could.  According to a vet expert on The Straight Dope: “The ancestor of modern chickens, the wild red jungle fowl (also a darn good name for a rock band), wasn’t a great flier, but he could get around when he had to. The entire poultry family (chickens, turkeys, guineas, ducks) are adapted to living on the ground. Their beaks are better adapted to pecking off the ground, their feet to walking instead of perching, and their wings are smaller than other birds their size.”  He goes on to say that we humans stepped in and started breeding them to grow larger pectoralis muscles (that’s the chicken breast), so it became even more difficult for them to fly.  I suppose if our sneaky chicken was desperate enough, she got those tiny wings flapping pretty good and it helped her get away.

In one way, I’m rooting for the chicken.  She was brazen, she was bold, and maybe she just wanted a bit of an adventure.  But I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t last too long out there on her own.  So keep your eyes open for her, would you?  She has brown feathers and says “cluck”.


I’m Still Here

The day that my father went into a care facility several years ago, I remember trying to cheer myself up by saying, in spite of his change in circumstances, “He’s still here.”  It was a way to remind myself to be fully in the present, especially when I was with him, and to make the most of what time we had left together on this earth.

That became my mantra over the next few years through the many lows as his disease progressed.  Oh, there were highs too.  The highs were when we had an unexpectedly good conversation or when he made a joke (which he managed to do even near the end of his life), and when I was able to get him to answer his phone and tell him I loved him.  And one of the best highs for me was when he’d sing along to his old favourite tunes, with a sparkle in his eye and a little more of a spring in his step.  The greatest joy for me was that he always remembered who I was.

It’s been just almost seven months since my old Pop passed away, and this past Father’s Day was my first without him.  The year following someone’s passing is full of “firsts”.  How far have I come and what have I learned?

Take A Moment – it’s important every now and then to stop and ask yourself how you’re doing, kind of like an emotional, self-awareness scan.  People do that for you a lot in the beginning, just as your bereavement begins, but after a time they stop asking and you have to continue.  It’s not about feeling sorry for yourself, it’s about being aware of how much time you spend being sad.  By doing that, I am conscious of the fact that my grieving does become less and less, although it can hit me unexpectedly for odd reasons. It’s mostly important to realize that it is easing.

Let It Flow Then Let It Go – those unexpected moments when it hits you can be caused by the oddest things.  I saw an emotional scene in a TV show the other day, when a horse runs away from, and then decides to return to the man who released it.  It had nothing at all to do with death, but it was emotional.  And when I cried about the horse, it turned into crying about my Dad.  I just let it happen instead of feeling stupid at crying, which I am sometimes tempted to do.

Don’t Feel Guilty – this was certainly something I didn’t know I would experience, especially in the beginning. I would laugh at something, and then suddenly be hit with a sense of guilt, realizing that I’m alive and able to laugh but my Dad isn’t.  To get past it, I would have to talk myself through the feeling, reminding myself of what my Dad would most likely say to me;  that this is my life to live and I shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about his.  I let him speak to me that way sometimes, because I know what a pragmatic, down-to-earth person he was.  That helps a lot.

Take Comfort Wherever You Find It – I am not a religious person, but I have found comfort in certain thoughts and the occasional epiphany coming to me over the past few months.  One was the awareness that my father does, in fact, live on through me.  I have his genes, I have his words in my head, his stories and views of the world.  More and more his words and expressions, his jokes and stories come back to me, and I enjoy and appreciate them more than ever.  My daughter says that I sometimes move or say things in the manner of which my father did.  Sometimes I see my daughters do or say something that I or my husband would do too.  When we have children, they are an extension of ourselves and they are an expression of our drive to continue as a species.  For my father and my mother, I am that.

One of the most surprising initial reactions was my sudden and very real awareness of my own mortality.  One of my guitar students who is about the same age as me told me that recently his elderly mother, who is going through struggles of her own, pointed a finger at him and said “You’re next!” Well, my Dad would never thought to have done that to me, but when he left the earth, that’s what I was left feeling.  I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t have any blood siblings, but I have never been this acutely conscious of the fact that I’m going to die one day.  It is startling and sobering.  And frightening.

I read somewhere once that we spend most of our lives in denial of death.  I suppose that’s a pretty necessary thing to be in denial of, when you think of it.  I mean if you ran around fearing death at every corner, what kind of misery would that be?  In another blog post a few months ago, I described how my husband and I were sitting and watching a Hawai’ian sun set one evening when I was overcome by grief.  And suddenly out of nowhere, a school of fish simultaneously jumped out of the water to avoid hitting the rocks.  It was so startling that it jolted me out of my sadness.  And what it made me think was “This is life, Irene!  Live it!”

All those times I reminded myself “he’s still here” were a comfort to me back when my father was alive.  They brought me a sense of appreciation.  I looked deeply into his face and listened carefully to each word, and I hugged and kissed him and told him I loved him.  Sometimes we just sat quietly together, and that was good too.  I was absolutely and totally attuned to him.  Thank goodness I had the luxury of time and the wherewithal to experience that.

After reflecting on that little phrase and what it meant at the time, I have now pointed it towards myself. The sky is still blue and the sun still shines.  When I get up in the morning I hear the birds, not just at the back of my mind, but I really hear them.  I try to be in the moment, take a deep breath, smile at my family and friends and realize how much they mean to me.  Little problems in life are simply that:  little.

And I’m still here.