Some of my earliest memories of music involve an old wooden music console my parents had in our living room for the better part of my childhood. The record player, tucked within its carpentried confines, got a lot of use over the years, my mom constantly playing records along the lines of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and CSNY. While it may have been my mom’s love of 70s folk music that made my memories so pleasant, I’ve always attributed much of my childhood serenity to that bulky piece of furniture, exuding warmth into our cramped, little house.
In recent years I’ve accumulated an ever-growing collection of vinyl records. The expansion has been more a result of people handing over their unwanted, dusty stacks of records than me actually digging through crates at flea markets. When the collection first began, I didn’t even own a record player. As a result, I impulse bought a portable ION turntable with USB archive capability (the idea of archiving records in MP3 form sounds far more alluring than the actual tedium involved). From the get go, I was not satisfied with the sound that came out of the ION, and even the addition of external, amplified speakers didn’t recreate the memories I had of playing with my G.I. Joes as the sounds of Emmy Lou Harris reverberated through my childhood home.
Frustrated, I began scouring the internet for a console similar to the one my parents had. What I found were either overpriced (they’ve become quite the collector’s item) or dilapidated stereos that I suspect sound about as poorly as they looked. While going through one of these late night eBay searches, I discovered a scratched up console that was the same model as the pristine stereo my grandparents had in their farmhouse when I was a kid. I quickly made a late night phone call to my mom to see if my grandpa still had the old relic stashed away somewhere. She shot down my excitement, speculating that it had been sold at the auction my grandparents had when they moved from their farm to a nearby town decades ago.
Weeks later my mom reignited my search for the holy console when she mentioned on the phone that she’d asked Grandpa about it, and he informed her it was down in his basement. He told her I was more than welcome to it; all I had to do was come get it. It goes without saying that last week when my dad suggested going to visit Grandpa, I was quick to support the notion.
That Sunday my father and I left town early and made our way to Grandpa’s abode in central Iowa. I hadn’t seen him since his 2nd wife died the year prior, so I didn’t know what to expect. When we first arrived, he seemed like the grandpa I’d always known and loved. He talked about the same topics that always came up: the weather, the crops, and a walk-through of his daily routine (a glass of cider vinegar every morning “because it helps with cholesterol,” a bowl of TOTAL cereal “because it contains 100% of your daily requirement in vitamins,” and a can of V8 at lunch “because it contains three of your daily vegetable requirements”). My grandpa is the healthiest person I’ve ever known. At age 87, he’s healthier than most 60 year olds.
As I listened to the all too familiar conversation between Grandpa and my dad, I thought to myself about how I could ask about the record player. I didn’t want to come off as a greedy grandson because my visit truly was more about seeing him than the console. Before I could come up with a plan, he turned to me with a grin and said, “So I hear you’re interested in the old stereo. You can have the thing, but I’m not helping you move it outta the basement.” Of course, I was quick to oblige to the offer.
From there the conversation took a strange turn. “That reminds me, Steve,” he said turning back to my dad, “I had my will reworked by a different lawyer. The other guy was a crook. I wanted to give you a copy in case something happens to me.” The word “will” hit me in the chest and slowly floated upward in the form of a lump in my throat. The past year he had suffered with thyroid cancer, an ailment that had totally caught him of guard. While his radiation treatment eliminated all signs of cancer, he seemed demoralized by the realization that no matter how well he took care of himself or how much V8 and TOTAL he ingested, he couldn’t protect himself against everything.
The will conversation was just the starting point of a downhill discussion as he ventured into darker territory. I’d never heard him sound anything but positive, but on that afternoon, through teary eyes, he discussed his bleak life since the passing of his wife a year ago. Just the day prior he helped with an estate sale for his sister who died a month ago. She would be the second sister lost this year alone. In an attempt to change the subject my dad asked how poker night was going which only led to a list of all his former poker buddies who were all now dead. Poker night was a thing of the past.
As I sat and listened to my grandpa, I couldn’t help but see the ugly irony – by staying healthy and taking care of himself, my grandpa had in turn been forced to watch all his friends and loved ones pass away. Sure, he still had his sons and grandchildren, but they couldn’t be there day-to-day to help fill the void.
With our glasses of Black Velvet/Cokes getting low (my grandpa’s one vice), my dad suggested we go get lunch at a nearby truck stop known as “The Boondocks.” As we drove in Grandpa’s new Chevy Equinox ( he bluntly told us it would be his last car) I felt that the depressing tone of the afternoon had passed. My grandpa even joyfully announced to us, “I’m gonna take the scenic route.” But even this would dampen the mood. As we passed what was once Grandpa’s farm, he looked in the rearview mirror to me and commented, “Take a look at the old farm. Not to brag, but it’s not what it used to be.” I looked to my right to find the farm my grandpa once took so much pride in, the farm that had been in his family for almost a century, the farm that had been featured on the cover of Farming magazine decades ago, was now a collection of rotting, uncared for buildings. As the farm faded in the distance he added, “That barn’s not gonna be standing too much longer.” This was the barn he spent every spring painting and repairing. It was just one more thing to add to the list of things Grandpa loved and cared for that were falling apart right before his eyes.
After a fulfilling lunch and a much more positive drive back, we returned to his house for one last drink before leaving. Conversation moved back towards a discussion of his daily routine with his afternoons focused primarily on cleaning the house. Just like his old farm and his own body, anything Grandpa owned was treated with the utmost care.
As we neared the bottoms of our glasses, he asked, “You ready to go check out the stereo?” The time had come to unearth the buried treasure. After moving some items, we came upon it, draped in towels and blankets. We pulled off the covers to reveal a magnificent thing of beauty, the glossy surface of the oak shimmering under the basement lights. An outsider would suggest that the stereo was either new or refurbished. I thought of all the old, scratched and cracked consoles I’d seen on the internet and how this stereo remained immaculate.
My grandpa walked up to it and rubbed some imaginary dust off the top saying, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
I looked to him, standing tall at the age of 87 despite all that he’d lost, and answered, “They sure don’t, Grandpa.”