My apologies for the timing. I didn't want to spoil the surprise.
There was a particularly special Christmas gift I helped give some people this year — six people specifically. Like many of us, a good number of the branches in my family tree didn't gather this year for Christmas. We knew going in that this year's celebrations would be a series of video calls rather than in-person gatherings and, as such, one of my cousins hatched a particularly appropriate idea — surprise video caroling for our aunts and uncles.
Now, much like the Dickensian classic popular this time of year, there is one thing you must understand about my family or nothing that follows will seem wondrous. Singing was often central to the five daughters and the one solitary son of Herbert and Maribeth Bones. It still is, as a matter of fact. It's because of them that I can sing not only "Be Present at Our Table, Lord" with full confidence but also the Doxology and The Sevenfold Amen — though the end gets a little fuzzy on the last one. Christmas was no exception, as they made carols something of a tradition for a number of years. And oftentimes for a good number of years, Christmas was celebrated at my grandparents' home at the corner of 10th Street and Fargo Avenue right here in Spirit Lake.
Few, if any, of us cousins would place our singing chops above that of our parents, but we knew it would be meaningful if we could pull off a bit of digital caroling for them. It would be the kind of gift that is both simple and powerful, especially given the circumstances this year.
But we still needed some help from our parents — just not from their current selves.
Like I said, music was important in the family, and a few recordings were made as they sang Christmas carols over the years — both vinyl and cassette tape that have since been converted to CD. So, through the wonders of technology, our little group of cousins shared two of those converted tracks amongst ourselves for our little project. With our parents' voices in our ears to guide us, we each recorded ourselves singing and the most tech savvy of the group combined all the separate clips.
It was an experience that's hard to describe — hearing voices from the past. They're recognizable, yet they're new. I could pick out my uncle, I could pick out my mother's closest sister. Their familiar voices popped up with what seemed like a fresh coat of youth, but at other times any individual timbre couldn't be found — the group of voices simply was. My mind's eye now had young voices to match the young faces I'd seen in black and white photographs tucked in the pages of albums. I listened to them, and let all those bits and pieces of familiar voices animate the clearest photo I could recall — all six siblings gathered around a piano in their parents' home. Of course, when they cut that homemade record in 1965, there was no way the group of singers could imagine their children and grandchildren would be listening to their performance 55 years later, using it as a guide to return the gift of music during a year we couldn't be together for Christmas.
And, as surreal and sublime an experience as that was, it was someone else's voice that moved me most — my grandpa's.
I and the other cousins got a message on Christmas Eve. The same cousin who was inspired to coordinate our remote caroling had discovered grandpa added a few words to the end of a tape from 1981 which we'd used to sing "Joy to the World." Evidently, some of the family couldn't get together that year either, and so the tape was sent as a sort of substitute get together — not unlike what we had just done — and there was talk of adding grandpa's message to this year's recording too.
Unfortunately, I don't have many solid memories of my grandpa. I never spent a Christmas at the corner of 10th Street and Fargo Avenue. He and grandma had moved to Fort Dodge just a few months before I was born. Grandpa was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease when I was in the second grade, and he died in 1997 — I was about 10 years old. I never had a truly meaningful conversation with him. I never went fishing with him. I never played a game of pool with him — though I later learned from some other men at the retirement home that he was pretty tough to beat.
I tapped the screen on my phone Christmas Eve, and I heard my grandpa's voice for the first time in almost 25 years.
I hardly remembered what he sounded like, and I know I wasn't the only cousin in that boat. We had to ask the older cousins to confirm it was in fact him, though we couldn't imagine who else it would have been in that context. All the same, I had never before been so sure of anything based solely on my heart's reaction. From the bits and scraps I have in my memory, I knew for certain that was my grandpa. His voice snagged each and every tattered piece of words I'd long forgotten and left to be buried under years of growing up. It pulled them up through my mind while my memory sunk down into years past, and all those tiny threads waving in the void between then and now reached out and wove themselves together if but for a brief time. I felt small again as I listened to his voice and tried to catch every subtle sound of each syllable. I was so intent on catching everything I could that the recording seemed to somehow last forever within a single moment.
After 39 seconds, it was over. He'd run out of tape. I cried. I tapped the screen again.
Like I said, some of my cousins and I didn't get much time with the same grandpa everyone else knew. In many ways, a disease kept us from him during those years — and a disease kept us from each other this year.
But, by the same token, hearing his words took some of the sting out of both circumstances, because — somehow — what he said on that tape was exactly what I needed to hear.
And maybe your family needs to hear it too.
"We're of course sorry that you couldn't get here, but that will leave something better for another Christmas," grandpa said. "As we are home now and reviewing it, it was a wonderful time, and yet we know full-well sometimes things that turn out against what we plan in some way come out better. Our minister preached a sermon on that last Sunday."
Just like his children couldn't know there would be a chorus of cousins singing along with them decades in the future, grandpa couldn't know how much those 39 seconds at the end of a cassette tape would mean to a grandson he wouldn't meet for almost another five years. And that grandson couldn't know just how much a few staticky words could mean after three decades or so of silence.
None of us planned on much of what happened in 2020, and I certainly didn't plan on a Christmas apart from my larger family. Yet, it was perhaps more meaningful for us all. I suppose that's what grandpa was talking about.
It can still come out better, despite what we plan.