BY CHANA SHAPIRO / AJT //
My mother was pregnant with me when my father was drafted to serve in World War II. During his Navy service, my mother moved into her parents’ house, and everyone sat around the kitchen table reading and re-reading the long letters my father and my uncles sent home.
One time, though, my father sent something different.
Around the time of World War I, record-making entrepreneurs set up portable recording equipment at large gatherings. As a perk to WWI servicemen, these makeshift studios recorded messages for home.
In the following years, the recording devices were improved upon, taken to world fairs and other exhibitions and eventually offered to soldiers during WWII. The original “records” were designed for gramophones; however, newfangled “record players” were supposed to play them, as well.
When my father received word that my mother had given birth, he made use of a World War II portable recording booth to send a message to his wife and new baby; it ended (as did all his letters) in “Love, love, love, love and kisses.”
It was a funny little record, made out of something like thick plastic, probably celluloid. It was dark gray, about five inches in diameter, with a yellow label, and packed in heavy khaki-colored double cardboard. The address was handwritten by my father.
The first – and only – time I saw that record was when my mother found it during one of my family’s many moves. I was in second grade, interested only in the present, but my mother was determined to time travel back seven or eight years.
She wanted to listen to the record with me because I was the reason for its existence.
She put it on our record player, waiting for my reaction. I tried hard, but I couldn’t understand the words, blurred by scratchy background noise, poor amplification and rudimentary equipment.
I learned that the record was a family treasure, though its contents remained buried. I asked my mother to tell me what my father was saying, and she admitted that she’d never understood his message, either, but had never told him.
Our family moved a few more times after that, and the record remained packed away with old family books and other prized souvenirs. It was just as well. I thought that if my father had come upon the record and played it, he’d have known that his message was indecipherable.
After my father died, my mother went through their possessions and rediscovered the recording. She told my sister and brother about it but never played it because we’d be unable to understand it. Thus, it remained a family mystery.
Eventually, my mother moved to Atlanta, bringing the container of mementos, including the record, with her. When she passed away, the box of keepsakes made its way to our house.
A few years later, we renovated our home, and we moved boxes, including the one from my mother, to the storage area of our daughter Rachel’s house. I hadn’t laid eyes on the record since that one time when I was seven years old, but Rachel and I knew where it was.
The Plot Thickens
My sister’s daughter, Cindy, is a college student. She “accidentally” registered for the class “The Early History of Media,” in which her professor assigned her the topic of gramophone recording and its users (World Fairs, would-be musicians, soldiers).
Thus, Cindy learned about the pop-up recording booths. She read that special records were created in those stalls and asked her older brother, Joe, who is working on his Ph.D. in media, if he knew about those early records.
“We have one!” he laughed.
He remembered seeing just such a record when he was in Atlanta 10 years earlier. During a visit this year, our daughter Rachel gave the record to Joe, and Joe turned it over to Cindy. Cindy showed it to her professor, who’s a maven of the latest media technology.
Our whole family was caught up in the excitement of just possibly hearing the words of our father (or grandfather, or great-grandfather) from that unique time and place, and at such an emotional moment in his life.
Would modern technology unlock his words?
I got an e-mail from my sister that Cindy’s professor was able to do it, and Cindy, who’d never met her grandfather, heard it. My sister asked Cindy if it sounded like Grandpa.
“I don’t know,” Cindy answered, “because Grandpa died before I was born. But it ends in ‘Love, love, love, love and kisses.’”
Copies are now being made for my siblings and me. Soon we’ll know if it really sounds like my father, but it’ll be especially poignant for me. After all, my birth is the reason my father made that record.
Buoyed by his success and our story, Cindy’s professor encouraged her to use the record as a springboard to find out more about her grandfather, a member of the “Greatest Generation.” My siblings and I are putting together stories about our post-Depression father, both in and out of uniform, for this purpose.
I fantasize about my parents’ imagined reactions to our delving into the past, were they here today. My mother would be proud that the family remembered and located the recording. She’d listen to it over and over, teary-eyed, finally hearing her husband saying, “Love, love, love, love and kisses.”
And my father? He’d look up from his crossword puzzle, wondering what the big deal was, after all these years.
A Final Note
Many of these early records still exist and can be purchased for $17 to $20 on eBay. Are there grandchildren and great-grandchildren out there who wish they could hear the voice of an ancestor or look at his or her handwriting, as my own family can?
I, who have been roundly criticized for hoarding worthless family relics, offer a bit of unsolicited advice: Dear Reader, in the future, be very mindful when you clean out your attic!
Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines.