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What an old cassette tape taught me about how we keep our loved ones alive in the 21st century

Almost 30 years later, a son digitizes a conversation on cassette with his mother

Ty Burr's mother, Marjorie Tice, with her brother Kent, c. 1930.
Ty Burr's mother, Marjorie Tice, with her brother Kent, c. 1930.Courtesy Ty Burr

All day long we consume media: TV shows, games, social media, websites, music playlists, TikTok videos (for a while, anyway). Many of us spend more time in the digital realm than in the real world: We’re so often there that we no longer know how to be here. We’re cyborgs already and we don’t know it, locked into a loop of present-tense diversion — an endless, entertaining Now.

But what about Then? Our media holds a past and a population we too rarely revisit, whether photos in a scrapbook or online feed or the “talking books” of home videos. These are the places we came from.

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Last week, at the request of one of my sisters, I pulled a nearly 30-year-old audio cassette out of a box in my basement and digitized its contents onto my computer via a hardware widget I’d purchased online. In so doing I heard my mother’s voice for the first time since she died in 2005. It was an out-of-body experience more profound than any other piece of sound or vision I’ve encountered all year.

The stories we consume — the shows, the movies, the podcasts — are always about someone else. What about those of our own? The cassette was the record of a 1991 date my mom and I had made to walk around her house in East Kingston, N.H., and catalog all the stuff. Every table, chair, and tchotchke; all the stories behind every scrimshaw and watch fob I’d heard and half-heard over the course of my life, all on one 90-minute plastic ribbon coated with iron oxide. I took photos of everything, too, but they’re in a different box. It was the sound I was now translating into a new format; bits of family history turned into bytes on a hard drive. This is how we keep our loved ones alive in the 21st century: as ghosts in our machines.

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I tell you this in part to urge you to do the same with your own aging relatives if you haven’t already and before it’s too late. Also because we rarely remember how byzantine our own family histories can be and how wayward the narratives can get. I’d just about forgotten that the engagement ring my wife wears and my mother wore before her came from a legal client of my father who used it as payment and a grateful thank you in the 1940s. I relived the love and rivalry of my paternal grandmother and her sister, two women I never met, through the lore of who ended up with which piece of furniture. I became reacquainted with 19th-century ship’s captains returning from across the Pacific with soup bowls whose mates are in museums. In a year that has taught me to dread the future, this has been a welcome immersion in and diversion to the past.

Marjorie Tice, c. 1940
Marjorie Tice, c. 1940Courtesy Ty Burr

It’s been a visitation, too, from a much-loved woman. My mother, born Marjorie Tice in 1923, was a child of the Depression and a daughter of Brookline. She lost her father at 10, her first husband at 44, and too many of her Brookline High classmates to World War II. Her own mother, who nearly outlived her, was, honestly, an overbearing pill. My sisters and I felt protective of her, especially in the long years of her widowhood. We thought of her as a sweet old lamb.

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Which was of course ridiculous. She fought my father to the edge of their marriage over her desire to go back to work. She had memories of dancing all night to big bands out at Norumbega and the Cocoanut Grove. In her 50s, she drove a cherry-red Triumph TR4 on road rallies throughout New England. When it came time to eulogize my mother at her funeral, those who knew her from her iron-fisted rule as the comptroller of the Park School in Brookline, where she helped oversee the 1971 move from the old buildings by Route 9 to the new site on Goddard Avenue and in general kept the purse strings Yankee tight — those people just about laughed in my face. “Who was that shy, unassuming woman you were talking about?” they asked; “I’d love to have met her.”

This only proves that we know our parents as parents and rarely grasp who they were and how they functioned in their own world, among their own peers. The past lets us do that, through silverware or secretaries or knickknacks that only tell their story once you blow off the dust. And through recording mediums, analog or digital, that let us hold our loved ones in the snow globe of memory. Use those mediums now or lose the stories forever.

Marjorie Tice Rowell, as she then was, in 2002.
Marjorie Tice Rowell, as she then was, in 2002.Courtesy Ty Burr




Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.