My cousin left this message for me three months into my freshman year of college. His Chicago accent was so thick that I had to replay it a few times: Aye cuz, answer yo phone, he said. I talked to my mom, she told me you are out there doing yo thang. We were kids walking through Hyde Park, dreaming about everything we wanted to do, and you down there making it happen. I’m really proud of you cuz. I love you cuz, stay true to yourself. You’re my motivation.
Voice mail has gotten a bad rep. Antiquated and annoying, it can easily be ignored and take up too much phone storage and is a hassle if you happen to have a long-winded relative; most of us have all but abandoned it in favor of more instantaneous connections. But I did not realize what a trove my inbox had become until that day.
My cousin’s voice reminded me of walking down 53rd Street, eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos soaked in melted nacho cheese as sweat dripped down our backs. And days spent wandering around Powell’s Books after grabbing catfish nuggets soaked in lemon pepper from J&J Fish and Chicken. His words — “I’m really proud of you” and “You’re my motivation” — reverberated inside my head.
A few months before I received that message, I moved to Wellesley, Mass., to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Africana studies. What the admissions office, my mama and everyone else did not know was that I was running away from a city that had the same cadence as my cousin’s voice. People always joke that us Black folk from Chicago are just Mississippians in coats, and living in Massachusetts forced me to reckon with my own demons and the feeling that somehow I was living on borrowed time because of my deteriorating mental health. I could not bring myself to hold a conversation with anyone for longer than five seconds, and I was convinced that if the people I loved knew what I was dealing with on the inside, it would somehow persuade them to love me less, inadvertently making me love me less. So I fled. And although I deliberately chose to leave Chicago, I could not shake the shock and unease that came with learning another city’s sound. I felt so far away from everything and everyone I knew.
My mind went to places so dark that I found it hard to sleep at night, and I coped with drugs and alcohol. All the while, I pushed away the people I love the most. Soon they started to leave me messages that mostly went untouched, a little blue dot sitting next to each one as they piled up in my phone, waiting to be tapped.
I don’t know why I was compelled to listen to my cousin’s message when I finally did — why I tapped on his blue dot over anyone else’s. But after I did, after his voice connected me to a younger, sometimes happier version of myself, I decided to keep listening.
There were 10-second notes from my daddy, sometimes telling me about the oxtail he was cooking for dinner in his thick Canton, Miss., accent, other times simply checking in: I love you my beautiful baby daughter. It’s yo daddy. Talk to you later. Bye bye. The one-minute messages from my mama, asking her God to protect me from the wrath of despair, worried that her youngest child would somehow slip through her fingers: Good morning, beautiful, today will be an awesome day, she said. God’s giving you another day to keep going — let nothing stand in your way. Everything you need you will have! I’m claiming it in the mighty name of Jesus! There were the 50-second messages from my sister, singing R.&B. songs off key to put a smile on my face, and 30-second solicitations from my nieces and nephews begging for $20.
The messages did what my family had hoped: They allowed me to slowly climb out of my state of gloom and self-imposed isolation. Whenever I listen to them, I am transported back to Chicago — to my mama’s warm embrace, to late nights blasting Chief Keef’s “Almighty So” as we rode down Lake Shore Drive and to my homies’ rambling stories. Now I hoard my voice mail like little pieces of gold.
Recently, I’ve begun doing something perhaps even more old-school than leaving those messages in the first place: I started copying them onto CDs that I keep tucked away in a safe. The last note that I stored was one left to me by my grandma a few weeks before she died of Covid. In it, she asked me to FaceTime her so that she could show me her new hair color, saying that it made her look 25. As I processed my anger and sadness toward a life cut short, I listened to her message over and over again, reveling in the way her giggle made me feel, listening to her say, Heyyyy, Renny Pooh.
I shared the message with family members who, like me, had a hard time accepting the fact that she was suddenly gone forever.
But these recordings are infinite. I have an archive of everlasting audio that allows me to experience whatever memory I want, as many times as I want to. My loved ones’ voices will always be with me. Ready to be tapped on. Ready to make certain that I am never alone. On and on.