There is a scene in a recent television series where a disconsolate young man keeps calling his dead girlfriend’s cell phone just to hear her recorded voice.
Her phone eventually shuts down. But her voice was the last totally tangible part of her to die. The question is whether his obsession with that cherished voice was comfort or torture.
The same question is raised by a case in the New York Times: A mother has left her dead daughter’s voice on the answering machine for seven years. Presumably, for that mother, there is more comfort than torture. However, one of the mother’s friends is freaked out by not being able to call the mother without going through a deceased gatekeeper.
What would our elders from the past think of that? They were born before telephones, before voice recording devices, before home movies with sound. They lived in a time when voices died as soon as their owners did.
In that era, people who thought they heard voices of the dead in the wind or in the creaking stairs of old houses were imagining things. On the other hand, since the world began, religions of every sort have produced people who claim to hear their version of God speaking to them personally and often in ways that give them clout in their religious communities – or sometimes get them committed to the happy farm for the excessively imaginative.
The young man who clings to the telephone voice of the woman he loved and the mother who hangs on every word of a daughter who lives only in an answering machine reminds me of my third-grade teacher. She was a forlorn and emotionally exhausted woman. Her classroom was mostly a cheerless place.
Then one day, she was reading us the Eugene Field poem, “Little Boy Blue,” about a boy who played with a little toy soldier and a little toy dog and then put them on a shelf for the night, promising he would see them in the morning. But he never returned. Nonetheless, according to the poet, the toy soldier and dog waited for him for years, until they became covered with rust and dust.
Our teacher explained that the boy had died and that his mother could not bring herself to put the toys away. She could not remove what a dear hand had placed there.
Then our teacher paid us the compliment of confiding in us. She said her small son had died a few years before. He had left a handprint on a window. She said that she just couldn’t bring herself to wipe it away.
Her mood was better after that. Some of the hurt was purged by sharing her story with the living children who occupied her time. Just the same, if the telephone answering machine had been invented and her child’s voice had been on it, that child would have been heard from daily for years to come.
So let the young man in the television series listen to the precious voice of his lost love. Let that mother whose dead daughter answers each phone call listen as much as she needs. As long as the obsession remains more salve than crippling pain, to each his own on how long a wounded soul should cling to the sweetness that used to be.
Fortunately, I have never known such grief. But on a smaller scale, I admit, when I enter our little greenhouse, I always look down at the concrete floor where the feet of two favorite kittens made their mark one day in wet cement.
Those cats are long gone now but their memory keeps on calling.Bill Hall can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501