We’ve all heard some cliché joke about ‘voices in our head’, usually posted over and over again on Facebook or quoted by someone who hasn’t quite figured out just how tired that concept is. But this isn’t about some comic concept of ‘voices in one’s head’, but rather something that has haunted me for some time.
I long ago accepted I was a storyteller for my people. It’s never anything officially bestowed upon one by the ancestors, or even a conscious decision for me, but rather something I grew into. I vowed that I would do my best to put my children in touch with those they would never know. Just this morning I was telling them that in a couple of days would be their great-grandfather’s birthday, and the thought came to me yet again: I can tell stories (and often do), give dates and descriptions and all that, but how can I mimic their voices?
It’s not something one thinks about, but long ago my mother pointed out that she had forgotten how her brother, who was killed in 1995, laughed, until she saw a video years later. That always stuck with me. All the people who have gone on from my childhood left impressions upon me. And I can hear stories and life advice in the kindly, almost old-world talk of the hills.
My great-grandmother, Maggie Ewing, was a short little thing, who was a regular firebrand. She never had a bad day that anyone can remember, and the only time she wasn’t smiling was when she was about to get into mischief or intently listening to someone tell a tale. The thing I will always remember about her was her laugh. She had an almost cartoonish cackle, something akin to an old witch’s laugh from some long ago fable. There was absolutely no harm in it, and even if you didn’t find what she was laughing at amusing, her laugh alone would get you tickled. She had a way to light up a room with her talking and laughter. Countless hours were spent in the old carpeted floor at Deer, Arkansas listening to her and her children talk and tell stories. It was magical. But the best I can do is to mimic her laughter as I try and tell my children these things. And I can promise you, I can only do a poor imitation!
My great-grandfather, Wayne Holt, is another whom I often reminisce of, and I remember his soft, almost whistling voice as he told stories. He talked so unlike anyone else in the family, due to him being the oldest relative I had around. His speech hearkened back to a time well before my parents were even thought of. His soft, almost hoarse, voice would rise like a whirlwind when he hollered at some stray dog in the yard ‘YOUGETONOUTTAHEAH!’ and, buddy, would the gravel fly! I would nearly take to my heels when he would lean forward from his ever-present chair and let the dogs have it! He could be hard to understand, as we Holts have a habit of mumbling somewhat when we talk, but I remember his voice as a gentle, calm thing. Another one forever trapped within my head that I cannot get out myself.
Glen Charles was my grandfather, and I often quote him when I tell stories. He was supremely hard to understand, and there are still things he told me I’m working on deciphering! He had a habit of speaking so fast that his sentences would become one long word, it seemed. I would give anything to be able to imitate him, though, just to tickle my own children, as it tickled me when he would get excited and really start piling those words together! His is another voice that resides in my head constantly. When I fire up his old truck sometimes, I swear I can look over and see him sitting there, rolling a ‘PA’ cigarette and talking away, with that nonchalant air, as he looked straight ahead, only turning towards me from time to time to see if I was paying attention to him. He didn’t have to worry. I was always watching him to try and decipher!
My great-uncle, Dennis Ray, my grandpa’s brother, whom we all called ‘Cotton’, is another that talked like nobody else. His voice was somewhat like his father’s, calm and gentle. But when spurred to anger (which truly took some doing!), it could quickly rise into a near roar! He would often give little bits of advice to me in unexpected times, just out of the blue as we rode around in his Jeep. I well remember when I was a kid, I would be getting into something I shouldn’t and he would break loose with what I called ‘the hog call.’ I knew that sound meant to cease and desist immediately! I cannot put that sound into writing, but it was a short, three-second call that was almost a kind of hiss, with what seemed like every vowel in it! I jumped back from many bad decisions at that call sounding across the wide open front yard. It’s another thing I hear repeating through the recesses of my mind sometimes as I now work on that very Jeep I once rode in.
We all have family who meant a lot to us, growing up, and many of us well remember how they spoke. But how does one transmit these voices to one’s children without a recording somehow? Sometimes it’s just not possible. After all, our ancestors did their best for generations long before the advent of recordings came along. Remembering phrases, words, and stories keeps the memory and character of our people alive. I try and do the best I can with my own small children, but I always find that the hardest part to relay. So I say this to you: go to your elder family members and ask to record them! My wife urged me to do so and I have gotten some amazing recordings of people who are no longer with us. You will never regret you did this, believe me (no matter how questionable some of the stories may be!).
A little while back we came across some old family movies and I had them converted to DVD. Upon going through them I found a recording of some kids in the floor of a small room, both babbling to each other, and not making any sense. In the midst of it all, I heard an elderly woman’s voice, followed by a cackling laugh. I nearly jumped out of my chair as the camera panned up to reveal my great-grandmother Maggie! I paused and ran and got my wife and began playing the laughter while I said ‘See! See what I’ve been trying to describe?!’ She even had to agree it was pretty comical! I will forever treasure that DVD, as it helps me reveal an often overlooked and forgotten part of my people’s character.
Reach out, record, do what you can to preserve all your people’s story.
You will never regret you did so!