In Search of My Grandfather’s Laugh

I am a pack-rat of the highest order. I save everything. Well, not everything. I save memories. Photographs, letters, old cassette tapes with recordings of friends and family, and ancient family movies. But the problem is that if you save everything, you sometimes can’t find what you need when you need it.

For months I had been thinking about an old cassette tape that my father recorded for me on the weekend of my graduation from high school. While I was out at parties with my friends, my father recorded messages from family members visiting for my graduation. What I remember most from that tape is my grandfather’s laugh. I kept replaying the tape in my mind, but I desperately wanted to find the real thing.

My grandfather, Forrest Lee Mathews, was a booming presence, someone who was prone to taking people by surprise when he spoke. He said exactly what he thought—no mincing words. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a down-to-earth eye on the world. Every time I listened to the tape, I could feel the delicious tension in the room when my father asked his father to record a message for me. My grandmothers had just delivered their messages, short and sweet, and while I cherish the sound of their voices on that tape, I can hear their discomfort at being recorded. “Lucy, we are so proud of you,” said one. “We are so happy to be here, Lucy,” said the other.

When the microphone got to my grandfather, I could practically hear the collective holding of breath as everyone waited in anticipation of what he might say. He began to speak slowly, with all the natural warmth and charm that was his essence. I have always wondered if he thought in advance about what he would say, or if he simply made it up as each word rolled off his tongue. In his gentle southern accent, he proceeded to deliver a message that surprised everyone and resulted in laughter around the room. I think even he was surprised at how funny everyone found his comment. He, too, began to laugh, and got so “tickled” (as we say in the south) he barely got his closing sentences out. The moment is so candid and real, the laughter so unplanned and so true, that I feel lighter when I listen to it. And I feel closer to my grandfather. It’s as if he’s in the room with me.

The good news is that I did find the tape. The clip here is for anyone who is curious to know exactly what my grandfather said that day.  And I’m now taking more seriously the chore of cataloging and organizing all my pack-rat treasures because they hold so many important memories for me.

But the bigger question that has arisen for me from all of this is: how do we “archive” the ones we love? What bits and pieces, handwritten notes, recorded audio do we select to create a full picture of someone? Bigger yet, perhaps, how do we archive ourselves? What is the essence of me that I will want my granddaughter to search for one day?

Of course, there is no simple checklist. The answer is personal to each one of us. In thinking of my grandfather, I wanted most to hear his laughter. In fact, that’s a sound I cherish about everyone dear to me. But there’s so much more that can help create a full picture of someone– hearing a narration of a familiar story; reading a handwritten letter that captures a moment just after it unfolded; hearing someone speak about what matters most to them; and, of course, looking at photographs or watching a home movie. We can capture so much in this digital era, but how do we make sure we capture the most important things?

So I am posing the question rather than answering it– what relics or treasures are most important to you about the ones you love or about yourself?  Is anyone else a pack-rat like me, squirreling away treasures of memory? (I know you’re out there!) What do you keep and why?

**In case the audio player above does not work, you can also listen to the clip at:

19 Comments on “In Search of My Grandfather’s Laugh

  1. Lucy, this is positively brilliant. As you are very well aware, we filter our stories through other’s stories. I thought of my grandfathers and cried as I listened to your grandfather’s voice. Thank you for creating this wonderful moment. And thank you again and again.

  2. I cried when I heard your grandpas voice. I am an antique collector so I have to say I am a pack rat too, but one thing I am glad I saved is letters that my dad passed to my mom in the halls while in high school. I wish I had a tape of her voice. Thank you for sharing your story Lucy!

    • Suzanne, I did not know you were an antique collector. Very cool. How wonderful you have letters from your dad to your mom from high school! Handwritten notes are amongst my favorite keepsakes, too. But it is really amazing what impact the voice has on people as a “keepsake.” Thanks so much for your note!

  3. Lucy,
    I am Lee Ann’s friend Leah from Montgomery. She passed this on to me and I just had to say thanks for doing this. Your grandfather’s laugh made me laugh. He could be a myriad of my Southern relatives from my childhood. He is “tickled” in every sense of the word and so is everyone else in the room. This brought back to me my own memories of Sunday afternoons with extended family telling stories. Thank you. Lovely writing. Lovely man!
    Leah Slawson

    • Hi Leah,
      Thanks so much for your note! So glad you enjoyed Granddaddy’s laugh. I love that you laughed, too. Did you recognize Lee Ann’s laughter, prominently in the foreground? Her laughter “tickles” me in this clip just as much as Granddaddy’s. I have been amazed that the audio of my grandfather has touched people to laugh or cry just as if the voice were of their own loved one. I realize now that I have that reaction, too, when I hear voices I don’t know but that carry a candid authenticity and trigger a memory for me that I hold dear. I am learning so much through this process and it’s all beautiful– continually reminds me how we are all connected in lovely ways. Thanks for chiming in on this post!

  4. Hi Lucy,
    Loved this post! Of course, my memory is ringing with the sound of my Grandpappy Mathis’s beautiful baritone singing voice now. It was strong and clear even at his 90th birthday. I don’t save a lot of stuff. My mom is a bit of a pack rat, so I’m averse to burdening myself with too much stuff. And I live in a 2-bedroom apartment that also serves as my office and voice coaching studio. What I choose to keep is very specific and precious: Grandpa’s theatre costumes, Grandma’s bugle bead dress, and that silver saxophone that doesn’t work right. Some dishes Mom passed along to me with their attached stories. Stuff like that. In fact, I’ve been blessed by Mom’s ability to remember stories and share them well. I have pages and pages of transcribed stories from her. Thanks again, Dear Friend, for your wisdom and generosity!

  5. Hi Lucy. I must admit that I’m 100 % pack-rat like you. Pictures, letters, VHS, audio-cassettes, various documents and objects. I have a big desk and it is full of memorabilia. I call it – archive.
    Oh, yeah… Your grandpa sound so lovely that I listened the tape several times. It is more than obvious that he was a wonderful person.

    • Thanks, Vladimir. I am glad to know there’s someone else out there who is 100% pack rat! I suppose if we get enjoyment out of the keepsakes we have, then that completely justifies keeping them. Your desk archive sounds perfect. Appreciated your comment on my grandfather’s voice, especially. It is nice to know he comes across on the tape so true to his real nature!

  6. Lucy, I read this post and thought I had left a comment earlier. But, alas, something must have interfered. But I am so excited about meeting you on line through our mutual friend Charlie.

    I loved hearing your grandfather and loved also the thoughtful way you crafted this blog post, using the idea of archiving, saving, and keeping us in suspense for a few moments until we just had to hear that voice!

    I was “tickled” and inspired. Let’s stay in touch!

    • Thanks so much, Shirley! You did, indeed, read this story earlier. Charlie Hale graciously reposted it to his site to share it with his audience. And I so appreciated your comment there. But I am also very glad to have your thoughts here so that my readers benefit from hearing your thoughts and can find their way to your wonderful site on memoir, which I highly recommend:

      I love that you were “tickled” and inspired. I look forward to staying in touch.

  7. I’m having a sleepless night of jetlag in Amsterdam, and Facebook led me to your blog. I’ve now spent the last hour laughing and crying with your stories and songs, enjoying every moment of getting to know you all over again. I am now a faithful follower, looking forward to what comes next!

    • Thanks, SPB. Or should I call you “Sleepless in Amsterdam?” Whatever brought you to surf the internet and land at Studio-Lu, I am glad! I think all of my current work somehow emanates from the same spirit– equal parts laughter and heart– that gave birth to my guitar song that was just one chord (C, for the record) way back when we shared space together. Miss you. Hope to catch up again soon. It was fun riding in your Mama Mini-Van at reunions and sharing some time together again.

  8. Hey Lucy! I just looooooooooove hearing that precious clip of your grandfather!!! Makes me miss that beautiful black belt accent that died with that generation—don’t you love the way they said their sss?!?! Is that Lee Ann in the background laughing, or your Mama?
    Anyway, I kept some of my memories of my grandmother and great-grandmother in some of her hats (Nana had a matching hat for every suit!) and Nana’s spectacles (no ear piece—how did she ever keep those on?) and some hand fans and some of Grandmother’s everyday china. Oh, and I do have a bunch of photos in those heavy ornate metal frames she always had.
    I’m loving this site, and I’ll check back in with you soon! Pat Walker

  9. Hey Pat!!!

    So great to hear from you. You have a very good ear! Yes, that’s Lee Ann in the background laughing. I love knowing what you’ve kept– the matching hat detail makes me smile. All those things on your list, taken together, really create a picture of your grandparents and greats, and of the era they lived in, as well, don’t they?

    Hope your music and life are both going well! Lots of love!

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