‘Happy Anniversary to you….” My grandmother Rose’s Brooklyn-tinged singing voice is just slightly off-key. Even though she passed away four years ago, she still sings for our anniversary each year — because I saved the voicemail of the last time she sang it.
When she was still alive, I hardly bothered to listen to her voicemails the first time around. Returning her missed calls thus meant entering a conversation midstream. “Hi, Grandma. What’s up?” — “So as I was saying, she’s coming to Rosh Hashanah, so it’d be nice if you all made the trip…” — “Huh, who’s coming? And where are they going?”
Then one day, almost overnight, she wasn’t able to leave me voicemail anymore. A short visit to the hospice was followed by a lengthy mourning period during which I all but shelved my phone. Its very existence seemed to mock me, each ring a reminder that she would never call again.
Several weeks later, sitting in a parking lot, I scrolled my “favorites,” resting my finger above “Grandma,” tempted to call simply to hear her automated voice on the other end, when it struck me. I tapped over to voicemail and discovered years’ worth of vocal snapshots of her in my phone. I had never planned on preserving her messages, but because I had only haphazardly deleted my wholly ignored voicemail over the years — so there she was, not in body, but in spirit, mind and voice.
I spent the rest of that day Googling whether there was any way I could easily back up voicemail. The possibilities were endless. “Order your voicemail on a disc!” “Store your loved ones in the cloud for a small annual fee!” And so on. Because I was desperate for an instantaneous fix, I purchased not one but two separate programs that would let me choose which voicemail to download directly to my computer. As the monitor’s screen clock ticked toward 3 a.m., I sat back in my chair, sated. I had painstakingly, but successfully, vaulted each and every voicemail she had ever left me. I’d never lose her again.
What began as a fluke quickly morphed into a morbid but well-meaning neurosis. I couldn’t bring myself to delete anyone’s voicemail. Sure, I deleted pharmacy reminders and automated junk without blinking. But the living voice of a human being I knew? Couldn’t do it.
First it was just my husband, whose messages range from the scintillating “Chicken for dinner? Call me,” to the spitfire “Late conference call; see you around 7.” It was as if a neurotic version of my grandmother had crept into my psyche. “What if he gets into some horrific accident and these were his last words to me?” I couldn’t very well erase the voicemail equivalent of his final bedside moment. I hoped his final words might comprise something more than a reminder about the grocery list, but beggars can’t be choosers. So I saved them, too.
Then came my dad. He was, for decades, my rock. When my mother’s health rendered her unable to care for my brother and me, he drove us to school, cooked our eggs and read — nay, performed — Dr. Seuss for us. He was a boisterous Bronx attorney by day, but a spirited Star-Belly Sneetch by night. My children inherited many things from me — my untamable curls, my booming laugh — but no trait is as apparent as their adoration for my father. Two-year-old Rose cobbles together the words “Grandpa” and “phone,” pleading with me to call him no fewer than twice daily. To delete any message from him would be to deprive my own children of those same gems left by my own grandmother. Not on my watch.
Before I discovered the voicemail vault, I had felt a similar desperation about catching moments on video. I have clips of Grandma singing karaoke on my new Wii and I scramble for the camera whenever my daughter masters a new Broadway tune — but I never played any of the videos back. A video is a performance, but it doesn’t capture an iota of what I hear in voicemail messages – the heaviness in my husband’s voice at the end of the day, when he’s ready to do nothing but sit on the couch with me, or the spark when he’s regaling my voicemail about some hilarious moment at the office. A voicemail is reality.
In an era where email and texting threaten to extinguish live communication, I value the very effort of the phone call. And voicemail tops that: Not only has the person tried to connect with you in what is likely the most direct way, given the great distances that divide family and friends today, but they wanted so sincerely to reach you that time was taken to tell you so, even when you didn’t answer.
There’s a quality to that not answering that makes the message even more personal — a confessional, as it were: While some voicemail messages are short and to the point, other callers, when faced with the blank canvas of your voicemail, will leave meandering murals. Three-minute stories that make you laugh so hard you play them twice, or rambling train-of-thought attempts at planning a get-together that offer a glimpse at the inner-workings of your caller’s mind.
For those reasons, no one is safe from my vault. I save voicemails from friends who live down the street, from those I know may not be around for decades and from everyone in between, because when my grandmother passed, I lost, for the first time, a slice of my soul. Finding her again in my voicemail reminded me never to take for granted the opportunity to seize the authentic, fleeting moments between those I love and myself — and to put them in my pocket for a rainy day.
Sara Goldfarb is an attorney and writer. You can follow Sara at curlsgonewilde.blogspot.com or on Twitter @sjgoldfarb