Monday, August 17, 2009

Voices

I haven't posted in awhile. I've been busy helping my daughters get ready to return to college. Thankfully one will still be living at home and the other will only be a little over an hour away—so much better than when one was on the opposite side of the country and the other was ten hours away by car.

I've also been busy writing, mostly working on the novel. But today I wrote this piece for my Tuesday night class and I thought I'd share it with you before I share it with them.

Voices

“W6DZQ, Dog, Zebra, Queen in beautiful Mill Valley, California, calling CQ and standing by.”

I can still remember that sound, my dad’s voice from his shop on the other side of my bedroom wall. Both rooms were in the basement, nicely separated from the rest of the house, and my mom’s voice—a setup that suited us both just fine. Hearing my dad reach out to the world from the HAM (amateur radio) set he’d built was a comforting sound. He got his HAM license when he was only fourteen and he made a bit of pocket money building and selling crystal sets, a primitive version of the radio, in the 1920s. I often think now of how excited he would be about the Internet and our amazing ability to connect so easily with people all over the world.

Another voice I loved belonged to Father Murray Hammond, my minister. My parents weren’t exactly the churchy type but about the time I was in fourth grade I decided, for reasons I no longer remember, that I should attend church. I’d been baptized Episcopalian as a baby. Aside from weddings and funerals, that might have been the last time my family had been inside a church. The Episcopalian church in our town was located next door to my elementary school so I started walking there by myself every Sunday morning. In those days, kids had a lot more freedom to walk places on their own.

I found Sunday school boring but I enjoyed sitting in church with the grown ups because it gave me the chance to listen to Father Hammond’s voice. I never paid any attention to what he said. I was content to drift along on the tones and musicality of the words that flowed out of him. A number of years later I actually began listening to the content of the prayers. The words of the Eucharist that went along with the bread and wine —“Take and eat, this is Christ’s body…and drink his blood which was shed for you…”—my sixteen year old self found particularly unsettling. While I was so proud of Father Hammond for marching in Selma with the civil rights protestors, an act for which many of the well-suited, starchy parishioners in our congregation voiced strong disapproval, I had my own moral compass I needed to follow. Attending church for the sole purpose of drinking in his voice felt so hypocritical I stopped going.

Two other voices I adored were those of Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons. They were the radio commentators for the San Francisco Giants when I was growing up. Dad worked the graveyard shift at KPIX, a television station in San Francisco, so he was home during the day and summer afternoons were spent in the backyard. I’d read or paint pictures while he gardened. His transistor radio was always at his side crackling out the roar of the fans and the voices of Russ and Lon calling plays. Dad would join in by whooping or throwing comments their way. I didn’t understand baseball then but it didn’t matter. Those voices were simply the sound of summer and happy times.

Walter Cronkite had another of those memorable voices. Sometimes I listened to his words, like when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, but more often it was just the sounds he made when he spoke. His voice was comforting, like he somehow had a handle on what was going on out in the big, unfathomable world. In the sixties it was dangerous to actually listen to what he was saying, at least in our house when we were all at the dinner table. Civil rights, Vietnam, the Free Speech Movement, war protestors and then the hippies were simply not neutral territory. I can’t tell you how many meals were ruined when everyone (but my wisely silent kid brother) would start yelling at each other during the evening news on TV.

Years later I took voice over lessons and even recorded some commercials. It was fun wearing headphones in a sound booth, speaking into a mic while modulating my voice to rise and fall, hitting the words differently for nuanced meanings. Catching my voice later on the radio was a rush. First I’d recognize the familiar words and then realize that the voice sounded strangely like me, only better.

I don’t remember my mother’s voice. We were at odds so often when I was young that I think I learned to block it out. I could never hear it as pure sound. It always arrived with an agenda. Even after I was an adult her voice would be the one I heard inside my head, The Critic. Gradually, I made it go away.

Thankfully my mom and I became friends when she was in her eighties. For several years I would call her every night and we would talk and laugh on the phone. When she died I kept her answering machine. Every now and then I plug it in and listen to her greeting, just to hear the sound of her voice.

3 comments:

  1. That last paragraph made me cry. Who am i kidding when anyone mentions anything about a mom I cry, it seems these days. That's a great story. I really enjoyed it. I love how you kept the answering machine, I wish i had something like that of my moms to remember by.

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  2. I love the sound of some voices and they can represent a time or an event or a feeling in my mind. Lovely!

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  3. This is a lovely piece. It made me tear up!

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