“Well, it worked in 1982.” The silver Sears stereo had been in the attic for three decades, hidden behind oversized Christmas ornaments, bagged up fur coats, and my grandmother’s financial records. It would have stayed another generation, but my Aunt Mia is getting a divorce. The travelling clothes, speakers, guitar—all the things she put away for marriage—they are coming out now.
As soon as the turntable appeared, my Aunt’s focus shifted from unpacking the attic to uncovering the accompanying record collection. They had to be here somewhere. Once we reached the back corner without success, the search went back down the foldout ladder and out to the garage—just more corroded furniture from the demolished beach house. No records. The rest of us were ready to give up, and had settled back on the couch with the labradors when Mia called out: “I’ve found them.” The records were in the pantry turned book closet, where we had hidden out as children during rowdy games of tag and hide-and-seek. We never noticed them because they were in a box for an old ornamental fountain.
Back on the couch, we pulled out the small stack—these were just the select few that Mia kept when she fled to Europe as a young woman—and thumbed through the collection. Every name produced a gasp of recollection and excitement: Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Elton John, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, plus a few I had never heard of: Holly Near, Phoebe Snow, and Robert Palmer.
Mia’s first request was the Cohen record, a collection of his early folk numbers. As soon as I set the needle, the silver Sears speakers crackled with the opening guitar line of Suzanne. The stereo still worked. Immediately, Mia’s arms and fingers and legs were extended like a limp puppet pulled taught, the sound jerking her mind down long neglected passages. When Cohen’s lazy baritone crept in she practically shrieked with glee at the sound. “It’s like he’s here in the room!” I had never seen her in such a state.
To explain my surprise, I should say that this is Mia the mellow aunt, Mia who is so often amused but rarely ecstatic and never before contorted with pleasure from the sound of folk music. Her excitement only mounted as we moved into the lesser-known tracks: Bird on the Wire, Lady Midnight, The Partisan. These aren’t songs you happen to hear in the lobby at the doctor’s office; she hasn’t heard them since the records were put away thirty years ago to please a conservative husband and a newborn son who hid under the table when music was played. To think that they could have been forgotten forever.
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Mia says the records hold onto memories of all the times and places they were played. They hold onto the people who had a special love for just that one song and the late night parties they accompanied. Of course a skeptic might ask: “Can you really hear the difference?” I mean, if Mia hadn’t told me about the friends and parties, about she lyric she quoted in her high school yearbook, would I still hear those memories in the sound of the music. Of course not—but the point is that she did tell me, and she told me because of the records. That is their power. Somehow the bulky size and crude technology of the vinyl record make it more than just a medium for sharing sound. It is a physical object in its own right. It holds smells. You can hold it in your hand or hang it on a wall. It gets stained and scratched, but it also lasts. It is a reminder that can linger on and a message that can be passed along from person to person.
Sometimes I find a beaten LP at used record shop and I can only imagine the places it has been, but these records came with their stories intact. I managed to receive those stories, and to my surprise, the records themselves as well. In fact, as soon as we discovered the stereo, Mia wanted to find the records for me. She wanted me to have them. Then as we listened, and she sang along with ever word, I thought: “How can I take these away?” “How could I rob her of this source of joy.” But Mia was adamant, and I laid the records back in the ornamental fountain box the next morning and took them away. Now they are spread out on my bookcase, a core on which to build my own future collection.
Listening to Leonard Cohen and thumbing through the collection again, I can see what Mia was talking about. For me, they sound like that night, the night when all the memories came out. Whether I am listening to Fleetwood Mac or Bob Marley, the mental association is fixed. I can smell the musty boxes and see the old flower dresses and the denim hat, punched train tickets from Italy still in the little zipper pocket. On that cool late summer night we laid on another thin film of history to these worn records.
I told Mia she can come over and listen any time. She sounded pleased but not determined; it was my mellow Aunt Mia again, unconcerned with future events. She went thirty years once, and it might take another thirty years for the people and objects and memories to align again in just the right moment. Or it might never happen.