No, not that kind. We all know that kind, those which follow the poor souls dogged by mental illness. I have in mind another kind – the kind of voice that all of us have in our heads. Let me explain.
I was recently out of state for a family wedding. As we departed early the next day I found myself on a stretch of road that I have been more or less familiar with for my entire life – the Schuylkill Expressway which connects the city of Philadelphia with its western suburbs and which follows the path of the Schuylkill River.
Long before some of my wife’s family moved out to the Philly area fifteen or so years ago, I would periodically accompany my family there for visits with my father’s relatives. He always had a complicated relationship with his mother so our visits were not terribly frequent. But the small number of trips had the effect of making each one all the more memorable. And as I drove along the Expressway that led out of “Center City” (just listen to me talk like a native) and towards the Pennsylvania Turnpike, so many of those long-gone voices began to speak to me again.
My grandmother was an intense woman who lacked the attributes that many look for in the grandparent-grandchild relationship. But she was a highly memorable lady with a strong personality and opinions to go with them. Her thick accent from a childhood in North Philadelphia stuck with her all her life.
I got eyeglasses in the fourth grade of school. And at that time it was customary to dress up in a jacket and tie for the annual school picture. And that picture having been taken around the time I finally talked my mother into letting my hair grow out of a crew cut, confirmed that lots of liquid slickum had been employed to get my unruly hair used to laying on its side instead of standing straight up.
We took one of those school photos out to my grandparents. My grandmother took one look and could not contain her laughter. “Professor Malumpy!” It may not sound endearing on a white screen, but she meant it that way. It was a phrase that rang in my ears on that recent trip along the Expressway and the voice of my grandmother could not have been more clear if she had been sitting in the car with us.
I also recalled one of my visits there as a young adult. Grandmother was talking Philadelphia politics and who was in the running for mayor. She was a rare species – the East Coast Irish Catholic Republican. Even so, I have never forgotten the look of her face and the sound of her voice as she rolled her eyes and said “Fraaaank Rizzo!” There was nothing endearing about that one, it was the same tone of voice and sense of resignation that many of us so recently used when pronouncing the name of both major party candidates for President.
My grandfather was my grandmother’s opposite – a quiet, gentle man with a twinkle in his eye and a sly, dry sense of humor. His New England accent was different from that of my grandmother. “Helloooo Jimmy!” was always how he greeted me. I heard it again on the Expressway.
It was on the Expressway that my cousins laughed at the way my northern Indiana sister and I used the word “pop” for what they called “soda”. They laughed about our accent. Which was silly because we did not have the accent, they did, causing us to laugh right back. Five kids having a ball in the back of a Vista Cruiser – I heard it all again that day on the Expressway.
I remembered the voice of my Aunt Peg and the way she still called my father “Jimmy”. And that of my Uncle Pierce the time he took us to the Thanksgiving Day parade in the city when we were young. He made sure that our hats and gloves were on so that we would be “all toasty warm”.
And I heard my father’s voice bubble up as my memories overflowed the little part of my mind where they are normally tucked away. Philadelphia was the only place I heard others pronounce “orange” the way Dad did – “Aaaarange”. I heard him say it again.
Just like I heard him giving me instructions on how to get into the 30th Street Station to pick the rest of the family up the time I drove out separately. I heard him calling it “City Line Avenue” which sounded perfectly normal to me, even though all the signes called it “City Avenue”. In fact, all of the names of streets and places I saw on the signs – I heard them prononced by the voices long-deceased loved ones – Germantown, Lancaster Avenue, Plymouth Meeting, Conshohocken and the Schuylkill River.
Old photos do a pretty good job of preserving the images of our loved ones for future generations. They refresh the visual images that we still carry in our minds and let others experience them afresh. We have done much less with audio memories.
The age of the reasonably priced video camera came along after I was an adult so some of those recordings will help younger generations, if we can figure out a way to keep them in a format recognizable to future equipment. However, for those of us who came of age before video was common (or for my own children whose father resisted living life behind a HandiCam’s viewfinder) those voices live nowhere but in aging memories.
I love how certain settings can throw the switches in my memory, allowing certain things to flood my conciousness. When others are with me I can go off into long-forgotten stories of good times from decades ago. When I am alone those stories course through my mind – in full color and stereophonic sound. And I smile. Because I am all toasty warm.
Postscript: As often happens, I wrote much of this in a momentary burst of inspiration and then let it sit to marinate for a bit before coming back to it. During that interval I was sad to learn of the death of my Uncle Pierce, a wonderful guy whom I did not get to know as well as I should have. He was the last of “the adults” with connections to those long-ago times in Philadelphia. He is missed.
Photo credit: 1973 photo of the Schuylkill Expressway as it approaches central Philadelphia from the U. S. National Archives. No restrictions on use.