Got it taped

Sue Cowan, of Sunderland, UK, writes about her use of audio-tapes to preserve her family memories by recording events and developments.

I am a blind mother of two children, Stephen, aged fifteen, and Sarah, aged thirteen. Like most parents, I wanted to have concrete evidence of the different stages of development of my children, and although I wished to have lots of photographs for family and friends to enjoy, I was anxious not to lose out myself. I therefore decided, shortly after Stephen was born, to make an audiotape, on which I recorded facts about his first few weeks of life, and noises from Stephen. I did more recording as Stephen got older and Sarah joined our family, and I now have a large collection of tapes to enjoy.

When the children were very young, and could not contribute much verbally, I always had them with me when recording, but I did a lot of the talking, detailing their achievements, sleeping and eating habits, and medical concerns. I also described our social activities, which included going to and hosting National Childbirth Trust coffee afternoons, attending the local mother and toddler group, and visits to and from extended family members, none of whom lived in Sunderland. As the children grew, they became more vocal, and the information was presented in a more interesting way, as we had conversations about holidays, nursery etc. There were a number of incidents relating to toileting functions that were recorded, but I will spare the children embarrassment by not recounting them.

Play sessions

In the pre school years I recorded the children at bath time, and taped a number of play sessions, into which I also still incorporated information about the children’s development and our daily routine. Listening again to the tapes recently, I was reminded of the many activities I could carry out with the children, despite my visual impairment.

The children had a brightly coloured toy box, which housed such favourites as ‘Poppin’ Pals’. This toy had five buttons, each of which, when pressed, caused a particular Disney character to popup. There was also a plastic shape and sort pot, which consisted of a pot, spoon and lid, which had in it three differently shaped holes. Inside the pot were three corresponding shapes to push through the holes. Before the children were old enough to match the right shape to the right hole, they were happy to use the toy as an improvised drum, banging the upturned pot with the spoon. Sarah was very fond of her pull-along toy, Webster the spider, a present from her paternal grandmother, and Stephen and I often crawled around the living room and dinning room, playing with two wooden trains.

As they became able to tackle more complex tasks, we played with stickle bricks, making cars and structures out of different shaped pieces of plastic. Fortunately, the different shapes corresponded to different colours, which made it easy for me to encourage colour, as well as shape, recognition. On one session on the tape Sarah and I are playing with Popoids. As far as I remember, these were quite large plastic shapes and bendable tubes, which could be fitted together to form animals.

On one tape the children and I form an ‘orchestra’ consisting of recorder, shaker, toy piano and human voice. I remember other occasions when pan lids were used for cymbals, and the afore-mentioned pot was a drum. These sessions were fun, as well as acting out stories and fairy tales. We acted out on tape two favourite stories called The naughty sheep and The pig gets stuck. We also recorded Little red riding hood.

I was very pleased to be able to share books with my children. I used to be sent two different types, both containing Braille and print text, and pictures. One type was sent to me by the National Library for the Blind, and the books from there were called ‘two ways’. The pictures and text were stuck onto a Braille page, along with a description of the pictures, which proved very useful to me in relation to prompting discussion of the pictures. The other type of book was from the Clearvision Project. These books gave no details about pictures, but the books looked much more ‘normal’, consisting of ordinary print with plastic sheets, containing Braille text, interleaved between the pages. On one of the tapes we read The teddy bear postman together.

Character and occasions

I recorded the children having tea when our neighbour’s grandson came round to play. Stephen showed off outrageously, and although I can’t see him dancing, Sarah’s laughter and general high spirits are so infectious, that I can’t help laughing whenever I play the tape.

It is interesting to note that certain character traits were apparent in the children from an early age. Sarah appeared more diffident and lacking in confidence than her brother, and this remains true today. It was much more difficult to persuade Sarah to talk on tape, and she was more inhibited when we were acting out stories. Sarah was always a good mixer, and remains popular with the other girls on the street. Stephen’s tendency to be stubborn and to dig his heels in when requesting to do something he doesn’t want to do, and Sarah’s fiery streak, were in evidence when they were very young. I am reminded on the tapes that Sarah’s light ginger hair was frequently admired, as were Stephen’s big brown eyes. Stephen had a pronounced lisp for a number of years, of which there is no trace now.

Memories

It was impossible, of course, to describe on tape everything that happened, but comments made often trigger memories of other incidents or rituals. When listening to the tapes recently, I was reminded that housework was difficult when the children were young, and recalled trying to form letters or shapes when spraying polish on the furniture, then asking the children to guess what they were. Bed changing took a long time, as Stephen and Sarah always insisted on playing ‘parcels’. This consisted of wrapping one or both children snugly in a duvet, and posting them. Switching to the role of the recipient, I would then unwrap the parcel and express my great surprise at finding inside children or puppies, or whatever they had chosen to be. It took ages for them to tire of this simple game.

Listening to the tapes also triggered the memory of my visit to the local hairdresser’s with Stephen for him to have his first professional cut. On arrival I was told that Stephen was wearing only one shoe. Since he was only eighteen months, he did not have language skills to convey the problem to me, and although I suspected something amiss as we neared the shop, I could not guess what it was. Fortunately the missing shoe was soon retrieved from a nearby main road.

I was also reminded of the trips Sarah and I used to make to nursery after dropping Stephen off at school. We had to walk along a fairly long road, and to make the time pass more quickly, I would ask Sarah to tell me the house numbers. Sarah was happy to do this, proudly informing me that we were passing a three and a one, or a four and a three. On one of the tapes I mentioned a trip that Sarah and I made to South Shields with the mother and toddler group. We had a lovely afternoon together, with Sarah particularly enjoying burying my feet in the sand. On the bus, the driver had to brake sharply, causing a number of children to fall off the back seat, but we were unaffected. This trip in turn reminded me of how lost I felt when Sarah started school.

I recorded two Christmas mornings when the children were opening their presents. On the first occasion the children still believed in Santa, and although I could not see the wonder on their faces, there was no mistaking the excitement and delight in their voices. Also, because I am blind, their presents were described to me, since they believed I had no knowledge of the goodies that surrounded them. On the latter tape the children are twelve and ten, and know the prosaic truth about Christmas presents, but it is still heart warming to hear how thrilled they are with their new acquisitions. I recorded Christmas dinner in that year too, 1997, and also the following year. There were only the four of us on both occasions, although remarks were addressed to Kim, my guide dog, with whom I trained in 1993, and who is much loved by all family members. It is very noticeable on the later recording that Stephen’s voice had matured.

In 1996 I recorded a ‘radio interview’ with Stephen shortly after his return from Derwent Hill, an outdoor activity centre near Keswick. He described his activities, abseiling, walking and canoeing, for instance, and life inside the centre. A few months later I did a similar session with Sarah, talking to her about being a member of the recorder group at school, during which she tunefully demonstrated her skill, and about her activities as a Brownie.

I am not able to browse through photograph albums to look at holiday snaps, birthday celebrations, or at how the children have physically matured over the years. However I can listen to how they sounded as babies when they gurgled contently or cried, and can savour their sweet, innocent voices when they sing Postman Pat. When they are ten and nine I can marvel at how much they have grown up when they are being ‘interviewed’. The cassettes have brought me immense pleasure, and have proved a very satisfying method of recording the children’s progress in a way that is meaningful and enjoyable to me.

First published in Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood international, Issue 35, July 2001.

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