Humming Along

"The bridge is all crumbled. The water soaks into rocks that fell at the bottom of the road (at the end of the town). The town that we lived in, the memories shaken apart from the weeds that grow over the sidewalks." ~Matt & Kim


I'm old enough to remember Betamax players, when postage stamps cost 15 cents, and the 1984 election when Ronald Regan otally crushed Walter Mondale. I can also recollect seeing 8-track tapes lying haphazardly across the surface of my nana's vintage hi-fi when my sister and I would come to visit in the summers, and on school breaks. There wasn't really an organizational pattern that I could see, only that there were so many of them. It was a logical assumption that she was a fan of certain musical styles and artists, but there was no real order, so I decided one day to create one.


First, I carefully cleared each one from the top of the hi-fi, then I grabbed the old leather case from the cabinet below, where all the rest of the tapes lay, hostage to the whims of time in the midst of the audiocassette revolution that had hijacked the '80s. They spilled out onto the ancient carpet like ants after a storm, coming out of crevasses in the sidewalk. Looking at them, all laid out there on the carpet, I was filled with an undeserved nostalgia, and even though I don't remember now which artists were on those 8-track tapes I recall I was in awe that people's voices could be captured for all time within each one. For the first time I realized I wanted my own voice to be captured in that way.


My nana came in during the organization process, I'm sure amazed that I was cleaning anything up. I wasn't particularly known for that back then. She smiled at me in that way she had, a smile that said she appreciated me, not for fixing up her tapes, but because it was me. I don't think I knew then that everything was about to change, that life wasn't going to be as pat from that moment on, but I did know I loved those lazy Saturdays with my nana, that I felt warm when she smiled in my direction, even just in passing. To be with nana was to feel loved, to feel as appreciated as I ever had in my life, and the project itself paled in comparison. But she passed into the kitchen, and I continued on, determined to bring order to disorder.


The work moved in a fashion, as I quickly decided to structure the tapes alphabetically in the old case. What I really wanted to do was purchase a new case, in keeping with the idea of making the old new again, but I had no money, and something about the rusty case gave me that nostalgic feeling again, like I had been there when it was new and shiny. I felt like I had grown old with it, which made me sad in a way, as if life had passed me by while I was looking elsewhere. As I placed the tapes in order I listened to one of them on the hi-fi, the perfect soundtrack for my mission. It was an album from the 1970s -- James Brown, I think -- and it made me want to move my feet to its infectious rhythm. As I placed one 8-track after another into the case I hummed along to the beat. My sister came into the dining room and laughed at my attempts at singing and dancing, but I was undeterred. Nothing could stop my good feeling.


Before too long the job was done, and I stood back to observe my handiwork. There were still rectangles of dust on the surface of the hi-fi where the tapes used to lie, checkerboard patterns that I knew I would have to clean up later, but otherwise it looked good. There was a place for every tape, and every tape was in its place. I had even gotten ambitious and re-organized the .45s too, being as careful as possible because they weren't as compact and indestructible as the 8-tracks. While I stood there observing what I had wrought, my nana came back through with a pack of cigarettes in her hand and the newspaper under her arm. She didn't look in my direction at all that time, though, as if she had forgotten I was there, and I called out to her but it was through a haze and she kept walking. I frowned, knowing somewhere in my subconscious that it wasn't normal, that she wasn't supposed to be like that.


It would be a few months before anyone else noticed, but every time I heard that James Brown song I knew -- I remembered -- and I couldn't make myself forget, no matter how much I wanted to put it out of my mind. It was ironic that she didn't even listen to the music that she owned, that she hadn't in forever, but it became the lasting memory I have of her, of my nana, that James Brown song, that organization of 8-tracks she probably never listened to again. Not long after she was gone from the house the hi-fi was part of the auction, and I wanted it so badly, but we couldn't afford it, so it went elsewhere. I got the 8-tracks, though, in that old case I felt was falling apart then, even though I never opened it again. Just knowing that the tapes are still in there, organized exactly as I left them on that day when my nana smiled at me, is enough.


Of course I forgot about the James Brown tape, and it was still in the hi-fi when it sold. It could be anywhere by now, but I'd like to think that somewhere someone is listening to it and humming along to themselves. I'd like to think.



Sam McManus, Music Blogger