“A priceless heirloom caught on tape”
by Julie Severson
Did you ever receive a message on your old answering machine that you couldn’t get yourself to delete?
Perhaps it was a sweet, simple message from your spouse while away on a business trip. Or, maybe it was your sister calling from the hospital announcing “It’s a boy.” Or, suppose it was your little girl calling from Grandma’s house, proudly proclaiming that Grandpa taught her how to burp.
Like snapshots in a family album, such a slice of life narrated by a warm, familiar voice was sometimes too dear to delete. And since I couldn’t print it or preserve it in an album, I pressed the save button, day after day, not quite knowing what else to do with it. Or at least, until that inevitable moment came: With a slip of the finger, I hit delete instead of save, and the treasured keepsake was erased, wiped out, never to be retrieved again. And when that happened, it sometimes left a void as deep as if somebody lit a match to my only photo of Great Grandma Iltis.
It happened on a grey, soggy Saturday morning. I had a cold. My kids had colds. And my husband had to work all weekend again. I needed a cheer-me-up. I fixed myself a cup of strong French roast and pressed the play button on my answering machine.
In its deep, robotic voice, my loyal talking household appliance greeted me with what I expected to hear: “You have one saved message.” Then, a second or two of silence . . . and there they were again: my parents’ voices singing “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to our Jubilee Julie Jo Jo. Happy Birthday to youuuuuuuuu. We love you honey. Hope you’re out having fun. We’ll talk to you soon.” Beeeeeep.
Nothing that extraordinary to the outsider, I know. But to me, it was like a priceless heirloom. Dad’s rich, reassuring voice, singing a syllable or two ahead of Mom, in lovable, typical Dad fashion. Mom’s clear, sweet voice, like the angel wind chimes that dangle beside their front door.
Each time I listened to the message, I could feel the tension in my shoulders gliding down my arms and out through my fingertips, like a kid on a toboggan coasting down a snowy slope. Today, I thought, it would be nice to be a kid on a sled.
When I was little, Mom’s voice could dissolve my world’s problems. She would simply say: “How’s my Julie Jo today?” and it would all seem OK. And, not even a new episode of “The Brady Bunch” could stop me from racing to the front door each evening when she’d return from work and sing out, “Hi, kids!” still cheerful after a day of teaching highschoolers.
Dad’s voice, too, reminded me that I was safe and sound. One of my most favorite spots was next to him in church listening to his deep voice sing the beautiful hymns and recite the prayers. Like a little tugboat safe in its harbor, I could’ve floated there all day listening to the vibrations of the big, sturdy ocean liner.
I can’t imagine what it would be like not to have the chance to hear their voices again, I thought to
myself on that droopy Saturday morning after listening to their message one more time. Lost in my reflections of days gone by, my finger headed to what I thought was the save button. And then I heard it: “Message deleted.”
All I could do was stare at that once loyal, but now annoying piece of machinery that just ate my parents. I felt as if I had erased them from the earth. My stomach turned in regret. It could only be a sliver of the kind of emptiness I would imagine I’d feel, if one day I woke up and it was, in fact, too late to hear their voices in real time again.
After a moment of despair, I got a grip remembering, gratefully, that I didn’t delete my mom and dad. In fact, at that moment, I could easily imagine Mom sitting at the breakfast table reading the Saturday morning “funnies,” laughing until her nose turned red, with Dad standing a few feet away cooking up a couple of his “extra-special” omelets.
Filled with the kind of relief you have when you wake up from a bad dream and you realize it’s just a dream, I picked up the phone and did what I don’t do often enough since email came along.
“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. I just called to hear your voice.”