Voices from Beyond the Grave

When I smell the combination of ocean brine, fresh cut lumber and creosote, I am thrown right back to my childhood summers at Telegraph Cove. Smells are evocative. Sounds are too. Every time the radio puts on the Eagles singing Hotel California I see myself sitting on my bed, studying Geography 101, age 18, listening to my bright red, circular Panasonic radio (I wish I knew what happened to that thing!).

I got that same sense of being thrown back into the past when my brother forwarded me the uploaded files of my grandmother, Emma Wastell, talking into a tape recorder sometime in the 1970s, when she recorded her memoirs. There is a transcript (thanks bro!) but reading it was nothing near as reminiscent as listening to her voice. To someone else, that voice would bring to mind a fairly soft-spoken old lady, but to me, it was my own history. She is a person I knew and spent time with for more than 20 years of my life, a person who figures in specific memories and events. Those Telegraph Cove summers. Hearing her voice, I can see her in mind’s eye, wearing some frightful muu-muu dress, sitting in her beloved sunroom at Telegraph Cove, the room she finally got after decades of wishing for it and that was always filled with red pelargoniums and copies of the Readers’ Digest.

Hearing her tell of her early days growing up in Victoria at the turn of the 20th century, nursing in rural locales in the 1920s, then moving to Alert Bay and meeting her beau, who became my grandfather, was more than learning facts about a life lived a century ago. It was hearing a living, breathing woman tell me about watching the Empress Hotel in Victoria being built, having tea with painter Emily and her sister Lizzie Carr, riding on horseback to visit rural patients in the still-pioneering days of Quesnel in the B.C. interior. It was like being there with her, seeing the world through her eyes, as it was 100 years ago.

Spending time at the Royal BC Museum and Archives in Victoria rustling around on computer files, I found there were interviews available to borrow, on cassette tape, including two conducted with my grandfather, Fred Wastell. I haven’t heard his voice for over 30 years, and I smiled with my headphones on and my eyes closed to hear him being interviewed. Shutting out the room I was sitting in, his voice took me to the sundeck of the Wastell house, with the whine of Telegraph Cove’s sawmill in the background, and just a hint of rain on the plastic corrugated ceiling rattling through the interview’s questions and answers. I could tell that my grandfather was much more impressed with one interviewer over the other, not just by his answers but by the timbre of his voice.

I spent a lot of hours listening to other interviews of other pioneers, many of whom I did not know. I made notes and linked anecdotes. But whenever I came upon a voice I did know and remember, I sat back and just listened, sometimes closing my eyes if that voice was connected to a specific place I wanted to “see” again. History is not dry or dead if we have connections to those who tell it, or the places of which they speak. If modern technology does nothing else for our future, it will allow us to hear the voices of past lives, ideally of those that rest in our memories.