Dear Nana Family

Voices From the Past

You settle into the plush, cold seat and reach for the safety belt. Without thinking, you poke a key into the ignition. Oliver whines and you wait until you hear the engine purr before pulling the car into reverse.

For some time now, you’ve been on the lurk for a cassette player. Your collection of poorly-labeled tapes includes a forty-year-old recording of you and your brother, Bob, road tripping up the Texas panhandle one new moon night. Another tape features an after-dinner chat with your father’s mother, your Nana, from when you lived together in the ’70s. One includes Christmas carol duets sung by your mother and brother Michael. There are cacophonous family dinners, and skits the boys performed at the Farmhouse long before leaving the parental nest. You haven’t listened to them for years.

Sitting behind a red light last week, you take notice of a slot above your car radio. You stop at a thrift store and pick up a tape, push it in, and are stupefied when Roy Orbison’s voice erupts from the Subaru’s speakers. Back at home, you search for the long-silent cassettes and find them, six of them, nested inside a blue and brown Chapel Hill Toffee box.

You’ve brought the box with you, and after navigating backward without running into a crepe myrtle and shifting into drive, you choose a tape. A woman’s voice begins describing the cassette’s contents, and you think, “That’s me.” A moment later, you realize you are, instead, hearing your mother’s voice. She made the recording in 1998 and has included a road trip with Michael, his visit with Nana, and brother Joseph’s tour of Auschwitz.

When you tell your mom, while chopping greens, about how you confused her voice with yours, she starts singing. “We are Siamese if you please… “The effort makes her cough. You lower the volume and continue cutting out collard stems with a short, sharp knife, stacking the leaves on the far side of the board. She recovers and says, “Remember that? We used to sing it together on City Island.”

“Oh yes,” you say, as you always do. Sometimes you sing along, but not today.

She tells you that people couldn’t tell your voices apart when you sang together, a detail that seems new to you. Time has a way of bending memories.

It begins to snow, and your phone rings. Shelley is on her way home from Apex with time to chat. You tell her how you discovered the tape deck and mistook your mother’s voice for your own. How old was she?” she asks, and you know the answer without counting. “My age, exactly.” You stare out the window at the falling snow.

There is a place in that same tape where your brother, Michael, is talking to Nana in the nursing home. You lean in towards the console even though you know the sound is coming from the speakers near your feet, trying to discern the muzak-muddled words. “You look the same,” he tells her. “You always look the same.” Her response is inaudible. He continues talking, amicable, cheerful, philosophically nostalgic. “Even though I’ve changed,” he says, “I’m still the same Mike.”

“Do you remember Camille? She talks about you a lot,” he asks, and straining against your seat belt you hear the familiar croak of Nana’s voice. Now Michael is saying, “They’ve got you tied down or I would take you for a walk.”

Your feel trapped between life and death, suffocated by all those years, and wish you could walk into that gleaming room and set her loose. You remember your last visit to the nursing home, when you got her up and walked those loud and sterile halls together. You look away, out the windshield, wishing you hadn’t moved out west, knowing you couldn’t have played it any other way. Michael starts talking about food, about what a fantastic cook Nana was, and saying that if he lived closer, he’d whip her up some of his famous stew.

You arrive home and pull the car into the garage. You’ve planned the groceries, your social calendar, and menu for a snowy weekend and won’t need to take the car out again until Monday. Leaving the toffee box behind, you walk towards the house, distracted by the echos in your head.

By Camille Armantrout

Camille lives with her soul mate Bob in the back woods of central North Carolina where she hikes, gardens, cooks, and writes.

One reply on “Voices From the Past”

Memories, so special. I keep finding articles I’d like to share with my mother and books I would read and discuss with my father. I recently had my family VHS tapes converted to CDs which is a great boon.
Cooking at home on this snowy weekend has been delightful to me as well and the freezer is filling with meals ready to eat. My version of the military MREs. I just snipped the last and tiniest of the broccoli from my two plants that have been producing since last year.

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