When I was ten years old, Mama bought me a stereo for Christmas. It was creamy white with a detachable speaker on each side, and it sported a radio, dual cassette decks, and a phonograph that could only occasionally be coerced into working. For a few years after I got the stereo (which was the best gift ever), I had only a couple of pre-recorded cassettes. They weren’t nearly enough, so during this time, I did a lot of waiting for something musical to happen in the world so that I could record it. Mostly, the recordings were confined to what the radio played (e.g., the weekend Top 40 countdown, and most anything between 3-5 pm); however, I also “dubbed” several of my best friend Julie’s records and tapes (she was decidedly rich according to the standards of our hometown).
But even 30 years later, there remain a few sad little tapes — remnants that (for me) are like walking back in time, sitting on the edge of my lumpy, pink-sheeted twin bed, and staring longingly at the magazine-creased posters of Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, and Kirk Cameron on my wall. The barely-teenaged dreams that were in those posters and that are musically transcribed on those tapes speak volumes about a girl who wanted more and better and lovelier things, but who truly had no idea what those things might look like or where they might be found.
But it wasn’t just my life that was changed. It wasn’t just my teenage self that was preserved by the radio. When my brother, N, talks about knowing way too many Amy Grant songs for a guy who likes Guns ‘N’ Roses, or my brother, T, sings along with “I Huckleberry Me” in the middle of a mostly rap mix CD while he’s driving down the road, it’s solely attributable to the presence of my little white stereo in all our lives. Occasionally, when I clean out boxes or Mom sends me home with accumulations of stuff she’s found that I don’t remember ever having, I’ll discover yet another of the hundreds of tapes I made on that stereo. The songs are always a little crackly under the surface. The beginnings are missing the first three or four seconds, and the ends are sometimes reduced in volume so the voice of the radio announcer can be heard.
Life is almost never perfect, but it’s probably even less so when you have to work with so little money and so many unknowns.
I remember laying on the bed reading, waiting for the song I wanted to come on the radio. I’d be up in an instant — leaping over the rag rug next to the bed (so as to avoid breaking my neck during its inevitable slide), and hitting play and record together with the most practiced and expert maneuver you can possibly imagine. And the whole complicated feat usually took less than five notes to perform. (To this day, you’d play hell trying to beat me at “Name That Tune.”) I wasn’t missing a song if I could help it. And oh the joy if they played a couple tunes I wanted back-to-back; I usually ended up dubbing these more complete copies onto new tapes…why settle for missing notes when you can have perfection? To this day, the five or so tapes I managed to cobble together without static or missing pieces still make me think the Universe was on my side. At least sometimes. At least for a little while.
I don’t know how much Mama paid for the stereo, but I’m sure it was too much. Everything was too much back then. But unlike all the fad gifts I got (and didn’t get) over the years, the stereo stood the test of time. Without it, I would’ve had no background noise for the composition of thousands of journal entries, at least a couple hundred of which were written in a purple, lockable diary that my little brother had no problem opening without a key and that I still have to this day. There would’ve been no Beatles soundtrack for the hundreds of times I cleaned my room (which was my only refuge in the world and which never really got messy except when the cat moved her kittens to the bottom drawer of my dresser, and my room temporarily became the hub of activity in the house). Without the stereo — and my little brother’s purchase of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet — I might never have decided that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t the music of Satan after all (no matter what they told me at the Methodist church camp).
I don’t remember Mama ever telling me to turn the stereo down, not in all the years I had it. And I’m sure I played it loud because — no kidding — I come from loud-music-lovin’ stock. I think Mom must’ve trusted my musical tastes to give us all what we needed during our time at home, and I have to figure I did okay if Bon Jovi, Amy Grant, The Beatles, and various showtunes are the worst things my little brothers came away singing. Somehow, the fact that there was an assumption that everything I listened to was all right makes me feel like it must’ve been “a simpler time,” but it also causes me to wonder if (in some ways) I was more privileged than my own present-day step-kids, whose stereos are forever being shushed to a volume that is conducive to TV watching in the rest of the house.
I hate their music. Their dad hates their music. They even hate each other’s music.
It breaks my heart that years from now, Step-son will never amuse us, his wife, or his kids with the singing of showtunes or teenage girl music that he heard hundreds of times blaring from his sister’s stereo, entirely against his will. It makes me think that we’ve come too far, that we’re too comfortable, that our family could use a little less money and lot more forced closeness. Mainly, it’s just that I’d like to pull them all back in time with me, and make them appreciate the little things so much more than they do. They don’t know what their futures or dreams look like any more than I did at their age, but I’d like them to be able to look back at this time in their lives and remember — if nothing else — that there was so much possibility around them and inside of them that it lived in the very notes playing on the radio.