My family had a small collection of home videos when I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, captured on one of those hulking, heavy video cameras you inserted a whole VHS tape into–almost like a VCR with a lens attached.
There are a few videos of my brother and me, inane footage of the two of us running around the yard at various ages, sometimes fighting and sometimes actually enjoying each other’s company. There’s also one of me at 3 years old, climbing on top of a picnic table to humiliatingly sing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” My mother is there briefly, too, with fashionable early-’80s short hair and early-’80s short-shorts.
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You never see my dad, but you can hear him–almost godlike, because he was a disembodied, booming voice thanks to his close proximity to the camera he held. I watched one a few years ago at Christmas on an ancient VCR, the tape very scratchy and mostly out of focus, as the cartridge is falling apart–it’s obsolete and almost done for. The tapes are sitting in a pile at my mom’s house, and I know that one day they will break for good, and that they are probably too old to transfer to a digital medium. The last remaining evidence of my father’s voice, the final thing that roots him and his existence in my brain, will eventually cease to exist–just like VHS tapes, and the accent he spoke with, and my memories of him, too.
My father had a strange accent. It’s hard to describe to people because it’s so rooted in the area in which he–and I, and my mother–grew up. I certainly don’t have it; I fled my small Virginia town when I was 18 to go to college (albeit not too far–just a three-hour drive across the state), and then moved to Chicago and eventually New York. My Southern accent comes out on very few occasions: sometimes when I’m talking to my mother on the phone, and especially when our conversation concerns local town gossip. It will very rarely resurface when I’ve had enough wine and get excited about something (but immediately disappears when my boyfriend calls me out on it).
The last remaining evidence of my father’s voice, the final thing that roots him and his existence in my brain, will eventually cease to exist–just like VHS tapes, and the accent he spoke with, and my memories of him, too.
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My father did not have your typical Southern accent, like some redneck villain in a backwoods thriller or some highfalutin’ lawyer in a movie based on a John Grisham novel. The three of us grew up in Westmoreland County, dead center of the Northern Neck (the peninsula between the Potomac and the Rappahannock rivers), about an hour northeast of Richmond. My mother and I grew up “in town”–specifically in Montross, the county seat. My dad was born and raised on a farm down the road in Acorn, which used to have its own post office and is now just a sign designating a tiny slip of farmland that you can still find on Google Maps if you know where to look.
The Northern Neck accent is a peculiar one, and it’s fading out now, as regional accents are wont to do. My father–born in 1950, and who never ventured too far from home (unlike, say, my mother, who went to college a whole 45-minute drive away in Fredericksburg)–was of one of the last generations to hold onto the rounded, mumbling vocal stylings that are the only remaining examples of Old English, spoken by the folks who came across the sea to colonize Virginia. Novelist William Styron describes the sound best in a 1968 essay he titled “The Oldest America”:
Its quality cannot be fully savored unless heard, but it may be suggested by noting that in the tidewater you never go out but “oot,” and that house rhymes less directly with “mouse” than with “noose.” Still occasionally heard is the “yar” sound, in which “garden” becomes “gyarden,” “far” turns into “fyah,” and that old family name of Carter, one of Virginia’s most illustrious, is transmuted into “Cyatah.”
(I highly doubt there were any Cyatahs in my father’s family tree, but for what it’s worth, he used to say “boosh” as a substitute for “bush.”)
My friends in college were often astounded by my father’s voice. One openly admitted that she couldn’t understand him; another asked if he was from Louisiana or Alabama, refusing to accept that he didn’t have Deep South roots. Once, when my friends were shocked by my syrupy voice after I returned to Chicago from a long weekend visiting family, I sneakily recorded Christmas dinner conversation on my iPhone to offer some sort of origin story for my distant–and practically expired–accent. I had second thoughts about sharing the recording, feeling a little bit like an exploitative anthropologist. But I’ll admit I found comfort listening to it again when I got back to my apartment, the natural rhythms of my family members’ voices and conversations feeling, for lack of a more creative word, like home.
I don’t have any recordings of my dad, though. He died in 2008 after fighting a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. The iPhone had been invented by then, but I didn’t get one until two years later, just in time to record the Christmas conversation. I was still in possession of a flip phone when he passed, still pulling out a digital camera to capture candid memories. I often took videos with that Canon Coolpix–mostly blurry scenes of my friends’ drunken idiocy. In the last year of my father’s life, it didn’t occur to me to shoot any videos of him. I barely even have photos left of that final year, because I knew I’d prefer to remember him as he looked before his diagnosis, before he started to age at an extreme speed and the weight melted off his body. I wanted to remember him as healthy and happy, full of energy, and loud–the rounded corners of his accent padding his words as he’d tell whatever joke would leave everyone within earshot doubled over, which was perhaps his best quality and the one I strive for the most.
I feel unlucky to have lost my dad for a lot of reasons, but that it happened in a moment in time just before a minor, yet revolutionary shift in the way we make technology often makes me the most angry. Oh, but do I wish I had some videos of him–not for the action, but for the audio. I can describe how I think his voice sounded, but the truth is that I can’t hear him at all anymore. I don’t have any voicemails saved from that time, no short bits of digital film capturing candid moments that picked up the specific way he talked. The VHS tapes, stored three states away, are all but crumbled. When I realize I’m struggling to picture my dad–to remember his face, his grin, how tall he was–I can pull up a picture easily from the archives that I’ve built on the Internet. There’s no audio library, though, and his voice has faded into memory, just as the peculiar way he talked–a trait he shared with his neighbors and, at times, with me–will also trail off.