I’ve spent most of our corporate COVID confinement working through mounds of family history. As the the heir apparent of all things family-related, I have boxes of old letters, charts, ephemera, and photos to sort through.
It has been a wonderful adventure. I have learned things about my grandparents that I never knew—that my grandfather contracted pneumonia and Spanish flu in 1918, only months after he and my grandmother were married. He survived. His new brother-in-law, however, a student at Davidson College, did not. He was the only Davidson student to succumb to the virus.
Much of this information I have found in saved letters, newspaper clippings, telegrams, and books. All these “old” things have one thing in common; they will not disappear with the newest iteration of technology.
Among my inherited documents is a strange red plastic “loop.” It is a voice recording that my father made. It is a dictaphone recording—a “dictabelt” to be precise—a 1950s and 60s technology used by corporate executives. As a banker, Dad regularly dictated letters for his secretary, Mrs. Levinson, to transcribe and send.
As much as I would like to hear what’s on the tape, I have no way to “play” it, and I doubt many dictaphone machines even exist anymore. If they exist at all.
By contrast, some of the letters I’ve read are more than a century old. They tell me about life then, about my family’s trials and tribulations, about my great grandfather’s life as a Presbyterian pastor, about my great aunts and uncles, about my parents’ and their myriad cousins’ experiences during the Great Depression and during two World Wars.
Reading letter after letter, I have begun to “hear” their voices every bit as much as if I were listening to a recording.
In one poignant letter, my great Uncle Dan, the Davidson student who died in 1918, wrote about the trip—his final trip—back to college. I can “hear” the excitement in his voice as he explains his trip to his “Dear Folks.” I can “hear” his fatigue after traveling by train from Florida to North Carolina in a Pullman crowded with soldiers. I “hear” his frustration at having to spend extra money for tickets, and the relief in finally reaching the depot in Davidson.
I can “hear” him because a letter, like a book, like any printed memorabilia, doesn’t require technology for me to read it. All it takes is some time, sometimes a white sheet laid beneath a faded carbon copy, and occasionally a magnifying glass.
Our modern electronic communications, so widely shared and so seemingly ubiquitous, will disappear sooner than later. I have several old computers sitting in my basement right now with documents I’ll likely never be able to access.
So here I sit using a word processor to write this and assemble all my family stories—transcribing, summarizing, indexing, and filing. When it’s all done, however, I intend to put it in some kind of print form.
I will change it to paper and ink. To last forever.