I am so close to hearing the voice of the dead.
On a recent visit to my childhood home, my mom showed me an invitation that had come through the mail. Her eldest sister, my Auntie Phyllis, had turned 90, and the nonagenarian’s wish was for people to visit her in the seaside village of Comox and sign her guestbook. A photo accompanied the invitation, featuring Auntie Phyllis standing beside a lace-covered table, hoisting a teapot triumphantly in the air. Come for tea, she challenged family and friends with her trademark smile. How could I not take her up on the offer the next time I was on Vancouver Island?
Auntie Phyllis beamed as she toured us around her retirement home, boasting about her visitors to all her friends. Over tea later that night, Auntie Phyllis talked at length about the relatives of the past. My tea had long gone cold over the conversation, immersed as I was in uncovering family secrets. It dawned on me how much my mother did not share about her side of the family; growing up as a first-generation Canadian was tucked into her past and had not been carried forward to her children.
We left that evening after signing auntie’s guestbook, but something haunted me. A few months later, I emailed my aunt requesting an interview to talk about her experiences of growing up with Italian immigrant parents.
For three hours, she painted rich pictures of life in Creston, with each brush stroke adding definition to what family life was like for Italian immigrants before the war. How her siblings passed the time by hewing large cedars for the first log home on the flats by the Kootenay River, or helped in the packing houses when the bounty of the cherry harvest ripened. But the Second World War changed things for their family, she explained, as the mood of the country and town shifted. With the Italians on the other side of the Allies in this round, her father and mother had to register each week at the post office.
Dad didn’t have a lot of trouble, my aunt explained, because most people knew he was an Allied veteran.
I paused, and repeated the words. Allied veteran?
It turns out my grandfather fought in the First World War, as the Italian army joined forces with the Allies. At one point during the battle, my grandfather was captured in Austria and held as a prisoner of war until peace was attained. Shortly after, my grandfather embarked on a steamer to New York or Boston, she wasn’t sure, and made his way to Canada. Having only heard of his life in the Kootenays, the stories of my grandfather in his youth cracked something open inside of me, revealing an emptiness I didn’t know existed.
My aunt casually mentioned that she had interviewed her father about his experience as a POW and family in the homeland, making sure to preserve the conversation with a recording. As the eldest child, she had a connection to him that many of the other siblings did not. She still had the recording somewhere, packed away inside her storage unit. After sifting through cardboard boxes, my aunt uncovered the oral history, wrapped it an envelope and sent it my way.
I have never heard my grandfather’s voice. He knew my mother, his youngest child, was pregnant with her first, but did not live long enough to hold me in his arms. He took his last breath in October of 1977, only three months before I would draw my first.
I catch myself staring at this old Concertone cassette, wondering what my grandfather shared.
Geneological research often starts with oral history, and oftentimes it ends there as well. Older generations have finite time to share knowledge of those who came before them. Their lives are precious vessels of memories, information and so much more. Their recollections are the keys to unlocking tales of places, ancestors and traditions. These are the things that have seemed just beyond the veil, hazy spectres of a family history I share but cannot partake in.
I have stalled on finding a device to play the cassette, unsure if it will bring me closure. Will I understand him, given his thick Italian accent? All accounts from surviving relatives indicate he was gruff with traditional values. Must I love the voice I hear?
The conversation with my grandfather was recorded on March 9, 1975, making the tape 44 years old. Will it still stand up to modern equipment, or is the thin ribbon holding my grandfather’s voice brittle and about to break? The fear of destroying this record holds my finger back.
But it isn’t accents or equipment that is keeping me back from pressing play. It is the inkling that hearing his voice will not fill the void I feel in my life, but make it grow larger still.