Two summers ago, when my dad and I were cleaning out his house in the wake of my mother’s stroke, I came across some old cassette tapes. I turned them over in my hand, remembering the tape recorder my parents had given me the Christmas I was seven. Black and silver, it had a little round red button the size of a pencil eraser that you pushed to record whatever you wanted. I was entranced by it, and so were my disabled siblings, Bobby and Jeannette.
It came in handy a few years later, when my sister was about eight or nine. She’d been going to school for only a few years—it was in the days before Public Law 94-142 had come into play, the “Education for all Handicapped Children Act.” My parents had gone to conferences with her teachers, had talked to them about what kinds of activities she enjoyed doing at home, the self-help skills that she possessed. . . but one of the most important conferences that ever happened was in our public grocery store, and I was present.
My mom had the three of us kids with her, as usual, and we were keeping up a running commentary on which groceries we liked, which ones we wanted to put into the cart, and which ones we’d seen in the commercials. I’m pretty sure “Cookie Quisp” and “Count Chocula” were among the cereals we tried to sneak into the cart.
Jeannette chirped along merrily, asking simple questions and requesting the kind of silliness that Bobby and I would happily supply. When we got to the check-out line, however, we all fell silent. One of the teachers from Bobby and Jeannette’s special needs program approached us, and we knew that it was not our place to talk in front of the grown-ups.
The teacher (Mrs. Johnson, I think) greeted us warmly, then turned to my mother with a confession. “I’ve been trailing you for the entire time you’ve been in the store.” Apparently, she stayed one aisle behind us, listening intently to our silly conversation. And why would a teacher do such a thing? we wondered.
Because none of the special ed. teachers had ever heard Jeannette speak, in the entire time she’d been going to school.
My sister was a selective mute.
The teachers had humored my parents when they described how much Jeannette talked at home, believing that it was either wishful thinking on their part, or that we were so attuned to her physical gestures that we believed she could speak when she couldn’t.
So Mrs. Johnson’s astonishment in the grocery store was a telling moment for all of us.
I offered to give Mrs. Johnson some of the tapes that I’d made of the three of us talking together. The teachers were thrilled, and requested more tapes. We began recording on a regular basis—and it was always a fun time. I sang, read to, and cajoled Jeannette into talking away on those tapes, with Bobby chiming in encouragement.
So when I found the cassette tapes in my parents’ basement two years ago, a flood of memories came back. I wondered what kind of treasures I’d preserved on these tapes, and when I got back to my house, I dug out a little cassette deck that I used when doing running records with my students. I put in a new set of batteries.
I carefully rewound the first tape, and pushed play. “C’mon, Barney, let’s get out of here,” suggested a familiar voice. Not one of the voices I’d hoped to hear, though. No, this was the voice of Fred Flintstone.
I had a vision of myself as a child, placing the tape recorder on a shelf next to our old black and white TV. Saturday morning cartoons weren’t just for Saturday mornings any more, I had thought.
I pushed “fast forward”, then turned the tape over. Barney Rubble, Yogi Bear, and Captain Kangaroo spoke over the hiss. I put in the next tape. And the third. More of the same.
I put the tapes away, grinning ruefully. These three tapes had survived over 40 years without being destroyed. And what good did they contain? Not much. Certainly what I treasured at the age of 47 was quite different from what I valued four decades ago.
How I had hoped to hear my sister speak again, to hear my brother laugh.
But then again, maybe we always take for granted the things that we live with each day. The people we fuss with and ask to pass the salt and trip over as we rush for the door. Maybe the treasure in the cassette tapes that I found was not in their contents.
Maybe it was in their message.
I took the tapes back out of the drawer and tossed them in the garbage. I wouldn’t need to play them again to remember that I should treasure the moments I still have left with my family and friends. I've recorded that message in a place even time can't erase.
I’ll never hear my sister’s voice again, or my brother’s laugh. You’ve lost loved ones, too, it’s likely. And if you haven’t yet, you will. This story is yours as much as mine.
May you treasure and hold your loved ones close each day. There’s no “rewind” button on life.