Monday, December 23, 2013

Little Voices

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.




Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Doors Wide

-->*Note:  The following is an excerpt from a book I am writing about my cancer experience in 2009, so no worries; cancer references are past, past, past!
I wish I'd purchased an Advent calendar this year.  When I was little, the wait for Christmas day was agonizing in time’s slow crawl, and each miniature paper door marked a step forward, progress made toward the bliss of ripping off the wrappings and ribbons masking the presents under the tree.
Mystery beckoned in rectangular boxes, those deep enough to hold a doll.  Such packages were eyed with near lust, turned, treasured, and checked for heft.  Long flat boxes that rustled when shaken were shoved aside.  Probably clothes.  But… maybe not.  Nothing could be totally dismissed because one couldn’t really tell.  That was part of the exquisite pleasure.
Sometimes I would lie on my stomach beneath our Christmas tree’s fragrant pine limbs, haloed by glowing multi-colored lights, my chin resting on my hands.  While I yearned to know what lay concealed in the surrounding parcels, I also sought to transport myself to the scene captured in carved wooden figures in the crèche tucked at the tree’s base.  I’d close my eyes and seek the chill of night under a black velvet sky in Bethlehem. I strove to conjure steaming breath puffed from soft nostrils, bristly camel fur, wide brown cow eyes fringed with dark lashes.  The scent of hay and manure.  Rough men drawing ragged robes tight over sinewy shoulders.  And always, a radiance around a young mother holding her baby. 
When Tucker and Casey were born, Dave and I regained the magic of the season.  Santa resumed prominence on Christmas Eve, and now, decades later, so easily can I picture Tucker in red feet-pajamas and toddler Casey in a red flannel mop cap and nightie, both children dancing with excitement as they listened for sleigh bells.  Oh, the anticipation in reading “The Night Before Christmas” and setting out Santa’s snacks!  I still have the notes the kids’ wrote to him, their words spidery and crooked, haphazard on the page, with polite inquiries about Santa’s summer and sleigh ride, an invitation to cookies and milk, and the list of toy requests, lengthy enough to require parental help to transcribe them.  The passage of days to that night were a joyful march of projects, seasonal stories, baking, loving secrets, and the glitter-bright promise of Advent calendar doors to open every morning.
Having marked the past four months with chemo infusions, completion of each treatment was cause for celebration, as sure as opening doors #1, 2, and 3. In My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen writes of her grandfather’s belief that, “To be alive was to wait for the will of God to reveal itself.  And one waited with curiosity.  A sense of adventure.” A sense that the next day, behind the next door, might be…who knows?  A doll?  A puppet? New hair? A healthy body?  How my wishes have changed!
At this point, I feel a giddy bubbling inside.  I no longer have the chemo countdown, and ahead lies the return of energy, taste, enjoyment of food, my hair.  By January, I should have about a half inch, by March, a pixie cut.  Well, a sparse pixie cut.  By May, my wig – for which I have been so grateful – will be relieved of duty.
Until then, there are presents to buy, the tree to decorate, parties to attend, the kids coming home.  So many blessings, and I awake each day giving thanks for the potential it holds. 
Next year, I am definitely getting an Advent calendar.

* Yet another note:  This year, I have one, and it's a beauty!