Dave crouched before the stereo tinkering with the door of the cassette player with a miniature screwdriver. It was a good thing he was the one tinkering, for if I’d been the one with the tool, that stubborn piece of plastic s@# would have been snapped off and flung across the room.
Whew. Step back. Despite that tirade, the sparkle and promise of Christmas has infused me this year for the first time in a while. Cancer, Newtown, and my father’s passing colored recent holidays, but, along with Casey and her boyfriend PJ, our son Tucker and his wife Lisa will be home this December. This is a treat as they are now on a four-year rotation as two families (four actually) vie for this beloved couple over the holidays.
So I started early, taking out Santas that spend the off-season in a wooden jelly cupboard that once belonged to my grandmother. Over the past two decades, I’ve moved those Santas in and out of that cupboard annually, so how did I miss the small black plastic box tucked in the back corner? Yes, it was behind a wooden decoy from Mom and Dad’s old house in Vermont, and yes, a stuffed vampire teddy bear obscured it some, but still. For twenty years I’d searched for the box, once purchased at Korvettes or Caldors or some other chain store now out of business.
When Tucker and Casey were tiny, there were no iPhones or Flip cameras. In 1983 or so, Dave purchased a two-piece contraption, which claimed portability by virtue of a heavy shoulder strap, but the hand-held camera was huge and the video player ungainly. But we had our kids’ childhoods to capture, so we lugged that thing out on vacations, to playgrounds, and during holiday events. Before that get-up, all we had was a tape recorder.
Tucker was three and Casey an infant when we recorded our son singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Casey would chime in with a squall or coo, but during the recorder-only era, it was largely Tucker’s show. Sometime around our move to Easton, the tapes disappeared. Precious as they were, I knew I hadn’t thrown them out; someday, they’d turn up.
At the glimpse of black plastic, my heart leapt. I reached to the back of the cupboard and pulled out the case. It was dusty, maybe six and a half inches high and four inches deep, with six drawers, each with once-white Scotch labels now flecked with brown stains. I pressed the square red buttons at the end of each drawer. Nothing. Pushed the drawers, nothing. Really? Finally I have the box in hand, and I’m flummoxed by an antiquated system of plastic and springs? I squinted at the buttons and noted an arrow. Pushed in and up, and the drawer slid out with a snap to reveal a white plastic tape and Dave’s faded handwriting, “Tucker – Sept-Oct, 1980.”
Five drawers contained tapes, each a sliver of our young selves and our children. “Tucker – Dec. ’81,” “Tucker – Dec. 1982: ‘The Night Before Christmas,’” “Kids,” and “Casey – August 1983.” It was an odd feeling, holding them in my hand, not wanting to hope for much in case the tapes had degraded, but still feeling the tingle of possibility that I held living moments with my babies, moments when Dave and I were young and Tucker and Casey were so completely ours.
“Dave! I found them! Those tapes of the kids! Do we have a cassette player?” Not a sure bet, for the era of cassettes is long past.
Dave barreled in from the kitchen where he’d been making bread. He paused and thought, then said, “We do! I think we do…”
Together, we kneeled on the living room floor in front of the stereo, and pondered its components, four black metal devices, each by a different manufacturer: Radio Shack, Denon, Onkyo, and Sony, not to mention the rarely-used turntable by Technics. Triumph. The black box by Denon housed a cassette player.
Dave selected a tape and placed it in the compartment. In wonder, we listened to the whir as the tape rewound. Afraid to watch it spin, fearing a tear and tangle, I gazed out the window to the backyard, the vibrant green and red of spiked holly leaves and berries framing my view of November browns and grays.
Rewind complete, Dave hit “play.” Nothing. Tried again. Nothing. He pushed the eject button, and nothing happened. The cassette stayed put. Omigod. The past, our past, on a flippet of plastic trapped inside the unrelenting compartment of an obsolete Denon tape player. Enter the screwdriver, tinkering, removal of tape, insertion of tape, and any number of jabs at the “play” button.
What makes one jab better than another? For suddenly, a high-pitched breathy voice, two-year-old Tucker’s voice, filled the room. With glee, he sang “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Hickory Dickory Dock.” Nursery rhymes! Of course we taught him nursery rhymes, although I barely remember them now.
At times, it was hard to understand him and in the background, young Lea said, “not so close to the microphone, Tuck.” And my boy, the freshie, not so different then from now, moved closer, his voice booming from the Denon, as his parents, both young and old, chuckled in 1982 and 2013. I pictured those wide brown eyes, soft kissable cheeks, bowl-cut hair, and beaming smile and yearned to corral that happy little one into my arms.
Then thirty-two year old Dave, his voice loving and patient, cued Tucker, “Twas the night before …..”
“CHRISTMAS!” Tucker crowed, and he was off, his voice rising and falling with the cadence of the poem as he took us all through the house, past mama in her kerchief, to a commotion on the lawn, and a spectacle in the sky. “On Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Cupid and Dasher and Comet and Prancer,” called Tucker, repeating names until Santa had a full squadron of reindeer. Young Dave commented in the background, “Seems to be a skip on the tape.”
“Skip on the tape?” Tucker asked, but then rattled along, landing Santa in the fireplace with an emphatic “Bumpf!” I smiled at the “bumpf,” a sound effect I add to this day, hearing in Tuck’s recitation his storytellers as well as his tale.
I looked at my Dave on the floor by the stereo, his legs stretched out before him. His smile was broad even as he wiped tears from his cheeks, and I snuffled into a now-damp tissue while beaming at Tucker’s voice. Who else but Dave would hear and see what I hear and see in listening to this tape? Our minds’ eyes together in that time, seeing each other and grinning at our boy.