Racing, and recording, against time

True Tales From Everyday Living

November 05, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

Four years after the death of my grandmother, and long after we scattered her ashes on the banks of the James River in Virginia, I take comfort in the fact that I can still hear her voice. Literally - thanks to the foresight of my grandfather.

There's Nonny urging the 5-year-old me to sing songs from Annie and asking what type of prince I'd like to marry. Nonny on why she smoked and why she quit. Nonny remembering her grandfather and her cousin, the actor Red Buttons. It's all on tape.

See, Poppy bought one of those reel-to-reel recorders in the early 1950s, and he's been interviewing and recording family members ever since. He switched to cassette tapes in the mid-1960s.

What motivated him? An urgent need to glean the family history from his aging mother, who grew up in a Polish shtetl and immigrated to Boston, before her memories were erased. He never had the chance with his father, who died during my grandfather's sophomore year of college.

He also had to capture the early perceptions of my mother when she was a toddler, and of her more reticent older brother. In her teenage years, my mother was embarrassed by Poppy's recordings. He had to grab her first thoughts when she burst into the car, after she spent a summer in France.

Then, after I was born, my mom was bitten by the recording bug, too. Now that my grandfather is 94, she pounces on his every word. When my two sisters and I are home for vacations, she pulls out a recorder. "Mom, can't we just live, in the moment?" we protest.

But, here I am. Now, I've fully joined this tribe of transcribers. I'm the first person in the family to build a career around this irrepressible tendency. It's in my blood. Journalism somehow makes sense.

On and off for close to 10 years, Nonny lay bedridden, and most traces of lucid thought escaped her the year before she died. It was too late to quiz her about past loves and her psychic sense of past lives. And so, I turned the spotlight on my grandfather, as he approached his 90th birthday, providing him with a release from thoughts of his wife's imminent end.

The summer before my grandmother died, while I was home on a break from teaching, I started recording my grandfather, logging in obsessive hours every day. I frantically typed at the computer, keeping up as he narrated neat vignettes, punctuated with archaic language, into the whirling tape. Stories from his years as a doctor on Christmas Island during World War II, or making house calls to farms to visit polio patients, charging less than the other doctors in town, $100 total for prenatal care and a baby's delivery. I prodded further. Out spilled anecdotes and his opinions on abortion and adoption, and treating patients who were closeted homosexuals or chronically depressed.

This penchant for oral history, I've realized, is a way of trying to cheat death. There's something particularly Jewish about this form of storytelling, embraced by the Friedbergs on the maternal side of my family tree. It exalts the lives lived here on Earth, with curiosity and verve. It cuts straight to the difficult questions.

The dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cassettes - which my grandfather sloppily labeled in pencil on masking tape - now lie in scattered stacks. Some tapes are missing. Others don't match their cases. The few my mom recently mailed temporarily got lost at the post office. She was more than distraught.

As much as she loves the stories, my other grandmother, an Episcopalian, doesn't share this tendency to record, nor does my father, for that matter. Grandma McCandlish has mostly eluded my mom's attempts to interview her. It's a shame. We're missing some tall, ripe tales.

"I don't know that stuff," Grandma says. "You have to have an interest to know it."

It's a different story with my grandfather. He won't let me off the hook. Along the way, we discussed publishing a book of his medical memoirs. We've written about 70 pages so far. I've still got tapes to transcribe. Time is running out. The deadlines of daily journalism have kept me far busier than I expected. Mom wants the book finished in time for Poppy to experience it. I'm afraid it's too late.

But Poppy is thrilled that our countless recording sessions will at least get some mention in print.

"Good," he said over the phone, when I mentioned this piece. "I don't want this to all go up in flames."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

To listen to some of Poppy's recordings, go to baltimoresun.com/reallife.

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