How objects bind us to memories

Gray filaments unravel off spools, tiny fingers pull and twist memories (not her own) into a nest on the couch. I pretend not to care. I pretend the tape is just a thing, that the two other cassettes that were in the side table drawer but are now being/have been eviscerated don’t matter either.

I say that I’m not really attached to Julio Iglesias so my baby can have that one to play with but I move the still-intact Gipsy Kings out of her reach. My daughter is enjoying the game. My mother-in-law uses a pencil to reel the guts back in to one of the victims: Willie Nelson. I sigh in relief to see that the pencil trick is working, that the thin plastic is (hopefully) not too twisted or torn to play.

My husband says, Why does it matter? Its not like we’re going to play them…”

I say, “They were my dad’s.”

“That’s not an answer.”

I wonder if I should walk away or answer.

I answer then walk away.

“K., your dad’s not dead.”

My mother-in-law gently takes Julio from my daughter and starts to repair his guts with the pencil trick.

Rage unravels inside my chest and I stomp into the kitchen. I don’t want to be angry with my husband for not understanding. He is not an asshole, I try to convince myself as I scrub bits of liver off the cast iron pan, slam it on the stove, turn up the flame to dry the seasoned metal. He has no reference point. I slam the pan into its place on the shelf. He’s heard all about the trauma, the intensity, the sadness of my childhood. To him, my dad is the asshole… and I’d usually agree.

I barely understand this attachment myself.

My dad died when I was 25. I’d say a good half of those years were spent bitterly angry with one another. I was a rebellious middle child, he was a wounded genius who drank too much and felt too much and took his anger and frustration out on his family. I didn’t like him or what he did, didn’t like that my mom chose to stay with him after so much lying, didn’t like sneaking into and out of the house to avoid coming into contact with someone who so clearly despised me (so I thought).

He almost lost his family (us) but my mom didn’t give up on him. She held onto the goodness she knew was buried somewhere in his wounded soul. He cleaned up his act and I watched my parents’ relationship flourish. Until he got sick. Until their phoenixed partnership (clearly strengthened by adversity) turned the corner into care-giving. In the last few years before his death I came to understand that I didn’t understand much.

I certainly wasn’t able to understand him when I was younger, hadn’t been through my own deeply complex partnership and untidy dissolution, my own early mid-life crisis where I ended up drunk and reeling through shady bars and unfamiliar hotel rooms, hadn’t known that life moves quickly when children arrive and whisk away the many hours of the day you’d set aside to follow your dreams.

I sometimes wonder if he and I would have grown closer over the years because of the similar unsavory experiences that I so sincerely wanted to avoid. If we would have laughed about our drunken blackouts or comforted each other about hurting our spouses in pursuit of a more alive (and consistently elusive) life. If we would have joked about how we thought we were hated by the other when in reality all we both wanted was to be seen, heard, loved and speculated if I would go through the same thing with my kid when she turned 13.

I now have very little of my dad in my life, at least physically: an old paisley shirt with mother of pearl buttons, a cowboy hat, a few photographs, and some yellowing cassette tapes.

More than anything else, the cassette tapes unravel memories: My sisters and me in the back of the old yellow Vanagon late at night, my dad driving through the dark beneath the desert stars up to the Sierra Nevada mountains where we would stay in a log cabin for a whole week and fish for rainbow trout and eat burnt pancakes with Aunt Jemima syrup and smoky bacon and hike over snowfields in July and pretend like we were deer napping in grassy meadows near the tarn.

My mom and dad would sit up front in the brown vinyl seats and smoke cigarettes and play Willie and Julio and the Gipsies and sometimes talk quietly or sometimes answer a trucker on the CB radio they brought along for fun. Hot air blew through the dusty vents and mixed with the cigarette smoke and if we had to pee we’d pee in family size Folgers cans so my dad wouldn’t have to stop driving with three little girls and the wife always having to go.

By morning we’d be up in the woods where the air was thinner and our noses burnt faster and we’d chase each other through fallen pine needles like squirrels. Everyone was happy. My dad was happier than he ever was at home and I wanted to be a cowgirl not a city girl and I knew my dad felt the same about himself.

After a week up in the mountains we’d drive back to San Diego and listen to the tapes and inhale the smoke and pee in the can and arrive back at the house in time to jump in the pool for a quick game of Marco Polo before falling into bed, my dad sipping vodka in the living room.

I may never have a tape player again. It doesn’t matter. The stories that those tapes play are not audible to anyone else except here and now on this page, from my hand.

Or maybe my daughter hears the soft snoring of three little girls in the back of van when she twists and pulls the filaments into her lap or carries the little rectangles from one room to another.

Maybe she feels my reverence, my pull to the past as a pencil rewinds shiny blackness into its proper place.

Maybe one day she will hold the tapes and look at the pictures of a yellow van and three dirty little girl faces and a handsome man with honey brown hair and wonder who her grandfather was, who he would be if he hadn’t died 14 years before she was born.

Maybe she will find an old cassette player and slip a tape into the slot and fall in love with Julio or Willie or the Gipsie Kings and not quite know why but tuck the cassettes into a favorite box for safe keeping, just as I am doing now.

Jenny Goff is a sailor, farmer, chef, and writer living on an island north of Seattle, WA.

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