Hearing My Grandmother's Voice for the First Time

I recently "met" someone who died before I was born. My paternal grandmother, Donna Marie Watson.

In this digital age, it's easy to take for granted the comparatively recent luxury of recorded sounds.

The first known voice recording was produced on a phonoautograph in 1857. It was more than another century before audio recording became a practical capability for the average American household.

Now, it's as ubiquitous as the smartphones in our hands. It's a marvel, then, that not all that long ago, hearing your deceased relative's voice would have been impossible.

Donna Marie Watson (then Hammond), center, is shown with
her two younger sisters, Mary and Pat, circa early 1940s.
(Photo from Suzanne Shaw)
My Grandma Donna died in October 1982 of complications from diabetes. In 1979, after she had lost her vision, she enrolled in a School for the Blind at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

My Aunt Kathleen describes it as a "drab place with cinder-block walls," which mattered only to sighted visitors such as my aunt and my dad. They didn't really want to leave her there on the first day; according to my aunt, they wiled away time afterward just sitting by the river, contemplating the sorrow they felt over putting her in a boarding school. They were just 20 and 21. Grandma was 49.

The good news is Grandma learned a lot while she was there. Her instructors showed her how to use tape recorders to "write" letters to family members, which she then mailed in place of written communication.

In the mailers in which the tapes were enclosed, the instructors included directions for family members to record over the cassettes with new messages for the students to listen to in return. Aunt Kathleen said she always hesitated to follow the directions because she didn't want to lose Grandma Donna's original recordings.

So, instead, Aunt Kathleen saved the tapes all those years. She recently had a friend convert a couple of the "letters" from analog to digital so the rest of the family could enjoy listening to Grandma Donna.

I was astonished by how familiar and comforting her voice sounded, and how much her tone and inflection is a perfect mixture of my three aunts', her daughters', voices.

As the tears formed in my eyes over the miracle of "meeting" a woman I've always missed, I thought about how she must have been feeling:

  • Handwritten letters were the norm, so it must have been a big leap of faith for her to switch to a taped-letter format to communicate with her grown children. She is recorded sounding nervous that she must speak to an empty room, taping a one-sided conversation.
  • Did she worry that she wouldn't be able to edit her "first draft" in the same way that you can do when you're using a pen and paper or typing the letter on a typewriter?
  • Did she wonder why the instructors were having her practice this skill instead of phone communication? Was she already contemplating her mortality and hoping to leave part of herself behind?

Donna Marie Watson is shown circa 1950s.
(Photo shared by Kathleen Starkey)

As I said before, I always felt cheated by not having met her. What skills would she have passed on to me and my siblings? How would a relationship with her have shaped me?

These are some things I imagine I would have learned from her had we been able to share a life, face to face:

  • Cooking. She left behind a much-treasured handwritten recipe book that my dad has saved all these years. It has always been the go-to source for our family's no-bake cookie recipe, plus the Christmas treats: sugar cookies, peanut brittle, fudge, you name it.
  • Music. I don't even know what she liked. But from everything I've heard, she was a gentle woman with a soft heart. In my experience, people like that are a conduit for emotion. And music brings out the best in them. I can relate to that feeling myself.
  • Stories. She and her German mother, Hilda Nafziger Hammond, and jolly sisters, Mary and Pat, must have had such good times together. When I picture them, I picture laughter, cooking and story-swapping.

I won't get answers to many of my questions about Grandma Donna's inner life, at least not this side of heaven. But I am thankful that now I have heard her voice.

Share your story

Do you own precious recordings of a long-deceased relative's voice? Or are you creating sound bites for posterity? If so, what are three essential things you want your descendants to remember about you? Leave me a comment below or start a discussion thread over at my Facebook Community page, Rachel E. Watson.

Thank you for reading

This subject matter is close to my heart. I'm honored you took the time to share the experience with me. Come back again, and we'll chat some more.

Note: This blog entry is Part I of a series. Check back here for the concluding chapters.

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Sarah Mascara said...

My dad's mom died when he was 10, so I never knew her. The few times in my life that she has been talked about, it has been with a certain level of reverence. Awhile back, I visited the genealogy section of the Grand Rapids Library. They have these stacks of old obits, cut out of newspapers and organized like a card catalog. I decided to look for my last name, just to see if I'd find anything, and suddenly, there was my grandmother's name, her obit in faded newsprint. And my dad and his sister and brothers listed as the survivors. It was a very strange and surreal moment that brought tears to my eyes. I was not expecting emotion, but emotion is what I got! It's strange to have these moments of connection with people who you never met, but are still part of you. I wish I could have heard her voice! What a treasure your family has in those recordings!

Rachel E. Watson said...

Aww, that's so cool you were able to find her obituary. I wonder if Grandma Donna's is stored in any library archive somewhere?

I felt the same sense of surprise over how unexpectedly emotional I became when learning about Grandma Donna. It was like, "Why do I care so much about someone I never even met?" It's because, like you said, a grandmother is part of you. It's hard to get around that.