Recently—I think via Austin Kleon's wonderful blog—I stumbled across this short film and corresponding story in The New York Times. In it, a Pixar artist talks about his grandfather's practice of recording his memories in text and image. His grandfather is gone now, but he leaves behind a complex and beautiful recording of his life. (I recommend watching the film. It's simple and sweet.)
As I mentioned recently, I've been trying to keep a journal this year. Not even this year; just for the past month, really. And it's been going quite well. I don't think I've missed any days, and for the moment, it's such an enjoyable habit that I've gone full-bore, writing four or six pages at a time. I've stocked up on all kinds of journals—I may have just discovered that I'm a notebook junkie—so I can give them all a try, and decide which will become my go-to each time I fill a new book.
This may be a natural side effect of jotting down observations about your life and the world around or within you, but I find myself thinking an awful lot about the things we leave behind. You write a journal, and you wonder if anyone will one day read it. I find myself thinking exactly that, less because I am curious what someone might think of me and my innermost thoughts, more because I'm curious whether this might become an important document for my daughter one day, when I'm gone, or for my wife, if I kick the bucket before she does.
And that, of course, has me thinking about other things we leave behind, and things that might take on new meaning once a person is gone. When my grandfather passed away fifteen years ago, my grandmother gave me some of his treasures: his deputy sheriff's badge, the story of which I don't fully know but have always been curious about, since Grandpa wasn't a deputy; his football referee membership card; his bullwhip, which I remember him cracking in the field near his house; his nose-hair clippers—which, yes, that's an odd thing to give someone...but then I remembered that I'd given him those clippers as a Christmas gift when I was little, and he'd used them all those years since.
Still, that's a little weird.
But there are things that he didn't leave behind that I wish he had: his voice, on tape or in a video, most of all. I can hear his voice, but I can't remember it, if that makes any sense. It's there, and it's not. When I think I've heard it, it comes with all sorts of other sense memories that briefly swarm me and then vanish gain: the memory of how bristly his arms were, how scratchy his cheeks were, when he hugged me; the way he winked when he was trying to put one over on someone, and wanted me to be in on it. But his voice is almost gone.
My daughter will be seven this year, but she still loves her bedtime stories and songs. I think by that age, I'd grown out of such things, and instead read to myself, prolonging that period before sleep as long as I could. But I love that she's still right in the thick of it. We've read a lot of good books this year already: The Wild Robot Escapes, Harry Potter and the Whatever the Second Book is Called, another of the Wayside Stories books. And afterward, when it's time for lights-out, she inevitably asks for a song. If I ask her what song, her answer is almost always, "Idaho."
I love this song. Have you heard it? It's by Josh Ritter, an exceptional writer and musician, and he performs it with only the barest pluck of guitar to accompany him. The song's wildly open to interpretation, but at its heart seems to be a love-hate letter to Idaho itself, a place that the song's narrator tries to escape and cannot help but fall back into.
Been at sea for seven years
I got your letter in Tangier
I thought that I'd been on a boat
Till that single word you wrote
That single word it landlocked me
Turned the masts to cedar trees
And the winds to gravel roads
I've been singing this song to Squish since she was an infant, struggling to sleep through the night. I'd bundle her into the Ergo, a little baby backpack that held her against my chest, and I'd pace and bounce and sing. Over time, I discovered that "Idaho," at least the way I was singing it to her, blended perfectly with Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire," and they made a nice little medley. And as the years have gone on, a few other songs have slipped in there, too, never a perfect fit but still nice for mixing things up: Neil Young's "Unknown Legend"; a few Patty Griffin tunes, like "Top of the World" or "Long Ride Home" or "Rowing Song."
You see where I'm going with this. If I were here, it might mean a lot to me to have recordings of my father singing those songs. I might go back to them now and then, when I missed him the most, and listen to his voice, and drown in all the memories it brought up.
When Squish was a few months old, I created a Gmail account for her. Each month, I'd send an email from Felicia and me, telling her about the things she was into, what her life was like, things she said or did. At her first birthday, I made those an annual thing, and I'd write a long letter recapping her year, telling her things she wouldn't remember.
I think I'll record her bedtime songs, and email them to her. Just in case. Just so she has those memories. Perhaps a little morbid...but also perhaps a little priceless, someday.