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    Connections | Magazine

    In the age of Skype, we still keep in touch via cassette tape

    It’s no longer too expensive to call long distance. So why do we still communicate in such an old-fashioned way?

    Joanna Grochocka for the boston globe

    Jeanne and I said a tearful goodbye over 40 years ago in Quincy. I was moving to New Jersey, and Jeanne and I were distraught. How would we continue to share our innermost thoughts without taking our kids to Nantasket Beach every day during the summer or hanging out together on playgrounds and at kitchen tables? What would happen to our long, supportive talks?

    A few weeks after our move, Jeanne called, sobbing. “Did you hear? Elvis died last night. I can’t believe that he’s gone . . . and so soon after you left. I’m glued to the TV and am so sad. I just wish you were here.”

    After we talked for over an hour, one of us came up with the idea of using a cassette recorder to make and exchange audiotapes, which would be less expensive — even with postage — than long-distance calls. So, on August 16, 1977, the day Elvis died, our new mode of communication was born.


    Buying and using tapes was easy back then. Boomboxes and small cassette recorders were everywhere. We were in tune with popular culture for a while. But because Jeanne decided long ago that using a computer would be tantamount to selling her soul, we never updated our technology. Jeanne still doesn’t use a computer, so audiotaping is our preferred way of communicating. That strong magnetic tape, slipped into a little cassette recorder, has held us together for all these years.

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    About once a month, one of us takes out a trusty, crusty recorder and puts in a new tape. We close the door tightly as if doing something illicit and pour our hearts out, being sure that we have pushed “Play” and “Record” together (the only mechanical operation required). The old-time recorders are ornery, however. They whine, click, and wheeze as they warn us that they won’t be around forever. We coddle them, carefully cleaning and oiling, and they allow themselves to be used for our pleasure one more time.

    The tapes we buy are 60 minutes in length so we can sit back, relax, and delve into the nitty-gritty of our lives at a slow pace. Having a silent conversation partner encourages introspection; no interruptions or negative body language from this friend. And we each get equal time — no one can monopolize the conversation. We are heard and understood immediately, if only by ourselves. And if we happen to be venting and get carried away, we can always go back and erase.

    Our cassettes mostly arrive intact, but once I received an envelope of unraveled tape in a cracked plastic case. In an effort to salvage some of the message, I spent hours uncurling the tape little by little and wrapping it around the dining room chairs to keep it straight before using a finger to slowly turn the spindle and move the ribbon of plastic back into place. Why bother, you might ask. Elvis had the answer in a long-ago song; I do it “For the Heart.”

    Jeanne has mended my heart many times, and I’ve done the same for her. Just over a year ago, before moving from my longtime home in Andover, I unexpectedly went through a sleepless night of panic. In the morning, I turned to my husband, my doctor, and Jeanne, this time by phone. I didn’t go through a long list of friends to choose her. She was simply the person I turned to without thinking about it.


    After all these years, Jeanne and I wonder if our friendship would survive proximity. Is it distance that makes our hearts stay fond? Would we be friends if we lived in the same neighborhood again? And then there are the bigger questions: Can we hoard enough Maxell tapes to last a lifetime? Will our Sonys live as long as we do?

    Lots to talk over. Time to make another tape.

    Eileen Sharkey is a teacher in Boston. Send comments to Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.