inheritance of laughter

 

Bday Smile

I have her voice, exactly. Her laugh, too, is the same as mine. Hers hits me most deeply of all the voices I hear on the cassette tape I have unearthed from a box in the basement.

She’s laughing so much. She sounds so happy, so present, so engaged.

It is a recording of my mother interviewing my great grandmother – her mother-in-law’s mother – about her young life during the first half of the twentieth century. They are speaking French. My great grandmother’s voice is exquisite – exactly as I remember it from the years I knew her, maybe a little stronger than it was at the end of her life, when she was in her nineties. I think she is 85 in this tape, visiting us in California from France. Her sense of humor is contagious, she is witty and opinionated and she makes my mother, my father, and her daughter, my grandmother, laugh constantly. It’s been 27 years since she died and I can still feel the soft skin of her incredibly clean, porcelain white hands. I can still see the twinkle in her blue eyes that could no longer see the world outside of her memories.

I was 10 years old when this tape was recorded, and I am not there. But every time my mother speaks or laughs, it is as if I am. Her voice is mine. Her laughter too. She is younger in the tape than I am now, but we sound so much alike.

I am struck by the palatable joy in my mother’s voice, how amused she sounds by the stories my great grandmother shares, how curious and inquisitive she is. I am reminded that there was a time – before the storm that started a few years later – when we were all really happy. That’s what I remember when I go back that far in my memory – a feeling of ease together.

Side one of the tape ends and the tape player I had to borrow from a neighbor to listen to it clicks off. I open it, flip over the cassette and press play again. For a few minutes, they continue talking, and then the recording ends and there is silence, but the tape keeps playing.

Then a new voice: My own. I am 13 years old and I have decided to record myself reading the family history project I am writing for my 8th grade social studies class. I have no memory of this, but I am so glad I decided to record myself because the information I collected over 30 years ago about my family is priceless.

I stand next to the tape player on the kitchen counter with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes. That’s me, young me. Funny little animated me. Already a lover of stories and words. I am so cute, so lovable. I think my daughter would like 13 year old me, too. It’s been a really long time since I’ve reconnected with my younger self in such an intimate way. It’s a little like rereading my old journals, but different because this is my voice.

I put in the next tape and it is 1997 and I am interviewing my grandmother. Her voice is strong, too, more raspy than her mother’s because she was a smoker for more than half of her life. Her memory is sharp and she clarifies some of the questions I have after listening to my great grandmother’s stories. I didn’t remember that I’d interviewed my grandmother, but again I am so thankful. Five years later she had a stroke and she could no longer tell me her stories. I felt like I had lost one of my closest friends; this grandmother who was not even 50 when I was born. So young and beautiful and so present in my life for so many years, in spite of the distance between California and Italy.

She’s been gone for seven years. Her sister, who was like my third grandmother, for three. Their mother for 27. My maternal grandmother for 30. But it’s not their absence that I feel in this moment. What hits me most deeply is their presence in my life, still. Like they’ve settled in somewhere deep inside me and they’re always there for me to connect to.

To hear their voices again just brings me back to them more suddenly.

 

 

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