By The Bakersfield Californian
"What about this?" my youngest sister asked. She was elbow-deep in a box of old VHS tapes in our parents' garage. With our dad's death and our mother's move into an assisted-living apartment, my siblings and I were almost done with downsizing their long life together. The house was in escrow and we were sorting the remainder of our folks' unwanted stuff into manageable piles, heaps defined as give away, sell, dispose of, or keep. In the battered box, amidst musicals featuring Fred Astaire and boxed sets of World War II documentaries, my sister had found a homemade cassette tape, labeled only with our dad's name.
"Keep it, I guess," I said, hoping it was not some deeply disillusioning discovery, a criminal court transcript or a secret other family: You never know what might turn up in someone's belongings. "We'll figure it out later."
My sister went home to Oregon, and I forgot about the cassette tape. But she did not. She listened to it. Then she asked our mutual brother-in-law, who is a sound engineer, to transfer the recording to a CD, a copy of which he recently gave me. And I am so glad we did not toss that tape into the dispose-of pile, because it contained a treasure beyond price: our dad's voice-over classes.
My dad had the kind of voice that commanded attention and filled a room. It was at once clear and deep, resonant yet relaxed. A consummate salesman, he'd made his fortune in the business world. All his adult life, however, people had told him that he should market his voice for radio or TV narration. Apparently, after he'd sold his finance company and was at loose ends, he'd taken a 10-week course to explore the possibility. He never pursued this second career, but the work he'd done for his classes was preserved on the cassette tape, which had ended up in a sagging cardboard box of outdated technology in the garage.
My dad was not a saver, nowhere near a hoarder. He got rid of books and magazines as soon as he'd read them, and periodically weeded through his clothes. He used to pride himself on all the empty space in his garage. He had no use for collections for the sake of collecting. Most of the things whose fate we debated were my mother's collectibles, along with household items that she no longer needed. But the stuff my dad had saved betrayed a sentimentality he did not often admit to, things like a grandchild's drawing or an old valentine or letters from his Navy days. Or that cassette tape.
And though we have plentiful and wonderful photos of my dad, and precious bits of silent home movies, and later muffled videotapes, of family events, we have little record of his voice. I waited until the house was empty before I listened to the CD, because I was certain I would cry. But I didn't: The voiceover classes were too delightful, too funny, too exactly true. They flooded me with such intimacy of memory: my dad, reading advertising copy, taking direction before a re-do, and best of all, summoning his own specific memories of joy or pride or surprise at the prompting of the instructor, in order to tap into the reserve of honest emotions that the art of acting requires. The CD presents my dad as student, as muser, as plumber of emotional depths, delivered with the immediacy of his recorded voice, a voice that I couldn't forget, but that had faded a little in my mind. I welcomed its familiar ring and cadence like an old friend I hadn't heard from in years.
Condensing the large house of my parents' belongings into a one-room apartment had put me on a warpath to de-clutter my own life. I'd begun to judge my belongings through the eyes of my children. I pictured them asking each other, "Why on earth did she save this?" as I went through my drawers and boxes and started to dispose of things with a critical ruthlessness. But that cassette tape, something my dad saved that he probably thought was silly, has given me pause in my quest to simplify. Maybe the fate of some things is best left to posterity to decide. As my dad's lark has become my treasure, a tangible reminder of how lovable he was, it occurs to me that maybe the legacy we leave is not ultimately up to us.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at email@example.com.