The robot-guy on our message machine warns that we have three minutes, forty-five seconds left for taping. He sounds stern. I know the time is short, but what am I supposed to erase? Friends complain, “Your machine is filled up. I couldn’t leave a message. Is there a problem?”
There is no problem. But there are too many messages I can’t bear to delete - cherished voices sending love, cheering me on, reporting good news. I have listened to the entries that have made the cut despite numerous screenings in an effort to pare back… and still I cannot push “erase.”
I won’t delete Casey’s slurred message from January 2004, “Happy New Year, Mom and Dad!” She was in college and, bless her, had thought to call her aging parents in the midst of her drunken revelry.
I suppose the robot-guy thinks our son’s Father’s Day greeting from 2005 is expendable, but in Tucker’s, “Hey Dad! I thought I might catch you before work,” I hear my boy smiling; I can see him smiling as he speaks to the machine.
Would the callous automaton have me delete my parents’ gleeful voices, giggling as they warble, “Happy Anniversary to You,” in 2006? I think not. In fact, when Mom and Dad called on my birthday in April, launching into such a robust “Happy Birthday” song that I cried and grinned all the way through, I begged them to call back so I could record it.
I will not sacrifice Dad’s message - made “Wednesday, 5:39 PM,” according to the robot-guy - thanking us for his Father’s Day card last June. My father’s obsessed with turning out lights; heaven forbid I should leave the den for a quick snack or a trip to the bathroom. I know I will return to a dark room. The protest, “Dad! I was only gone for a minute!” has been lodged more times than I can count.
So, when I found a card at CVS that depicted Thomas Edison’s son admiring a light bulb and quipping, “Cool invention Dad. I can’t wait to leave the room and forget to turn it off…” I laughed aloud. It was perfect.
Dad loved the joke and chuckled through his message: “Dearest Lea-Mice, this is your tired old Dad. It has given your mother and me great amusement that you would send a Father’s Day card of such extraordinary insight and perception.”
I saved Elvita’s triumphant call announcing that she passed her citizenship test. For over a year, we worked together at Mercy Learning Center in Bridgeport preparing for the examination. Through Elvita’s appreciation of our rights and freedoms and her study of American history, I re-learned much I’d forgotten. How many Americans, so fortunate to have been born here, would say, as Elvita did in her message, “I am so happy, so excited! I am an American citizen!”
A solid ten minutes of saved tape-time are devoted to my sister-in-law Deb, Aunty Cam and my parents, calling to compliment my writing. When I despair, thinking, “Who would read this crap?” I turn to the machine to bask in their accolades. I push “skip,” “skip,” “skip,” to message number eight (Deb) or number fourteen (Cam) in search of loving cheerleaders to shout down my inner critic.
The robot–guy probably smirked at one message from Casey. She had called, she said, because she missed us so much, and I prized the opening endearments. I hadn’t listened to the full message since first she phoned, but while writing this piece, I let it play through. I had to laugh as it unfolded – or rather, unraveled. After all the “I love you’s” and “Miss you tons,” she seemed to be wrapping up, when, “oh, oh, oh, I almost forgot. I’m running out of grocery money. Could you send some?”
Despite the dismay of the robot-guy, I’ve preserved two of my husband’s calls, left as he headed home from work. One says, “Hello my dear! I’m on my way! Love you to bits and pizzas!” The other is a nice example of Dave’s impression of Triumph, the comic rottweiler puppet, belting, “Yo Baby! How you doin’!?”
Having said all that, I acknowledge the problem of tape running out. This machine has a job to do. There are friends, relatives and tele-marketers dialing in to record current events. This black plastic box, so modern and efficient with its buttons and red light, is not a memory-collector.
But it is a voice-collector. Where a photograph freezes a moment, a face, a forced-for-the-camera smile, in a voice the whole person springs, living, to mind; the heart behind the taped message apparent. I have plenty of pictures of my grandmother, Byeo, but they are as flat and dead as she is. I sense her presence more fully in letters where she wrote, “Best luck and bestest love.” I run my finger over the words and can feel the impression where the pen left her mark….but I can’t remember her voice.
Dave and my kids are indulgent of my wish to save messages, but they ask, “How long do you plan to keep them?”
“Forever,” I would say, if I were to answer truthfully, but I shrug and respond, “I don’t know.”
Dave thinks that my hording of voices is morbid - that I am thinking too much about loss. I tell him it’s a thin line – imperceptible - between treasuring loved ones and worrying about losing them. Aunty Cam is ninety-one. How much longer will the robot-guy capture her voice? Mom and Dad are in their seventies and, for me, their voices are an audible hug. When the real thing is gone, I’ll be able to hear them with the help of my message machine.