Grandmother darling

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My grandmother has been as close to a hero as I have ever had. I admire her, Nora Reed Burleigh. Grandmoms are always awesome, I have had friends tell me. I do not doubt it, but I will have to take their word on it. See, I have only ever had one Grandmother.

Technically I have only ever had one Grandfather as well, but he was absent from the majority of my mother and her sibling’s young lives. In reality, Thomas Burleigh has probably been just as, if not possibly more involved in the lives of his grandchildren that his first generation spawn. When I think of Grandmothers, I picture my own. Grandma Wilma Ferentchak died long before I was born, close on the heels of her husband, my Grandpa John Ferentchak. I have never known them. Possibly because this key generation left the scene so early, there was never enough glue left to cement that side of my family together. There is an aunt, for instance who I haven’t seen since I was two years old, with two daughters I’ve never really “met.” For me family was always found with the Burleighs, not the Ferentchaks.

Grandmother was the center. If I was to draw a web diagram to trace and link my family together, she would be dead center. She is our sun and the whole family orbits around her. She is irreplaceable.

My grandmother is 82 this year. She has lived through a lot. Born post WWI, she grew up during the depression and became a nurse. She was the first member of her family to go to college. Nora Reed married the intern Thomas Burleigh and had seven beautiful children. After divorcing him (the man had mensa level IQ, but lacked some common sense) she raised the seven on her own. She stood for independence and competency. “You better be able to support yourself,” she would say, “because you can’t count on a man to do that for you.”

Yet the years are now exacting their toll. She has recently begun to display the symptoms of dementia. No longer are events clear to her. The days of the week and the dates on her calendar are becoming confused. It is scary sometimes. She will forget the gist of a conversation or the details of immediate plans. Worst of all, she knows things are muzzy and that distresses her perhaps even more.

My heart curls up real small inside my chest and my nose starts to tingle to forewarn of tears.

But she smiles. Grandmother still smiles and laughs. She is outrageous good fun. I love talking with her. Together we will gang up on my aunts, or my mother, who fuss like little hens. They want to take over everything for her, which is quite annoying to the woman who raised them. “She’s just not aging gracefully,” I told Grandmother as Aunt Dorothy bustled to sort Grandmom’s mail. The saying stuck.

My grandmother is a big part of me. I recently came to the no duh conclusion that my best projects–works of art, like film or writing – were the ones where I really had something to say. When I could feel my pulse accelerate and my hands itch to get started, to lay down the facts as I saw them; those were the moments that I did my best work. Passion is everything. So I wanted to do something for Nora Reed Burleigh.

The biggest regret, one I am gradually rectifying as a result of this current project for FND-112 is that I know nearly nothing of my grandmother’s life. Really how much do we know about anyone’s life? We simply never ask. So I decided, time to ask.

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I would speak with my grandmother. She lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, however, a 4-hour car ride even from where I live, on the opposite side of the Rocky Mountains. Luckily, modern technology is the boon of the 21st century. I could call her. At first I called her cell phone, which was a rookie mistake if ever there was one. Grandmom is notorious for never charging or remembering her cellphone. After that I wised up and asked my mom to pass on her home phone number.

The first 3 times I called there was no answer. There was not in fact an answering machine either. Or rather it was one of those classic machine messages where she had not realized anything was recording and aside from a muffled bump or two, there was no aural cue that anything was going through. In some ways that was quite depressing. The phone is ringing, I thought dully, but nobody is home.

Eventually I got through to her. The most astounding part was the clarity with which her voice came through. It was tinny from my cellphone speakers, but there was no buzz of static. I recorded her just like that. It was not the most imaginative way to make a wav file, but it worked–my DR-40 sitting on the table beside my phone. I spoke and listened. She replied and elaborated.

You could the kind of day she had been having by how she spoke. On a bad day, she was confused. Her voice was softer and sadder. “It’s all fragment-mented,” she stuttered. One time I called her to chat, on what proved to be an especially trying day and she forgot halfway through the reason I had called. She began to think she had called me. About my Christmas card from January. I felt numb but did not contradict her, merely continued to talk naturally.

When I sat down in front of Reaper, almost an hour’s worth of phone calls under my belt, I dithered a bit. Calling her had inspired me. Nora’s fading and glitchy memory was not unlike a dropped phone call. And since I was calling her in order to get the audio I needed, why not use that metaphor? A call is dropped. A person lost.

I first compiled a “call,” only about three minutes long, I pulled from different conversations to create a new one. This was a conversation that had never played out in real life, but yet was entirely true. A collage, a neat mesh of her voice.

I played around with trying to create static or a buzz. None of the results were really satisfying. In order to have a reference for exactly what a dropped call sounded like, I asked my mother to drive through the dead zone in our neighborhood while chatting on the phone. I recorded the dropped call and then opened it up in audition to examine.

What I saw should have been obvious.
Audio signal
Where the call ducked out there were no audio waves. Literally in order to simulate a dropped call I just needed to cut up her performance. I would slice away parts of the audio. It was meticulous and in some ways inane work. Little slivers removed. I played and replayed to make sure I liked the effect.


My grandmother, Nora Reed Burleigh, was always the strongest woman I knew. She was not only the first woman, but the first person in her family to attend college. She became a nurse. She met my grandfather, Thomas Burleigh, who was a surgeon. The two spent their first years together in five different states as Grandpa served in the Army. Grandpa was, and is, someone with a Mensa level IQ. He was and is also very combative, ready to argue for the sake of disagreement and these days full of eccentricities and conspiracy theories. Together, they had seven children. Then Tom cheated on Nora and left her for another woman, who also had seven children. They were later divorced as well.

Thus it was that Nora raised seven children, packed them through college working as a recovery room nurse. She is a pillar. She is strong and a firm believer that you had best be able to support yourself and never lean upon a man.

This year she turns eighty three. Until recently, Nora was still the caretaker. She nursed and encouraged friends, led the family events, and told every story with a positive twist. This last year and a half have seen a change.

My grandmother is expressing the early stages of dementia. Her memory is clouded and her understanding of events is hazy. She is no longer sharp as a tack and witty to boot. The change has been dramatic. I called her before Spring break and she sounded lost. She asked if I would be visiting. It made me ache to say no.

I want my Sonic object project to be about my grandmother. More precisely I want to capture her voice. I want to record the things she still has to say, to compound them into an idea of Nora Reed Burleigh, the incredible woman that she is. To do this, I will call my grandmother. This is something I should be doing anyway, but with a cohesive project planned, I actually will.

My object is a metal box that I painted a red cross on. This is to represent her long work as a Nurse.

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If, God forbid, nothing else should come of this project of mine, at least I have been struck by the blunt realization of a simple truth: We should all call our grandmothers more often. I suppose this is true of grandfathers too, and probably alcoholic uncles, I simple have yet to muster the human decency to do so. When our loved ones approach the darkest parts of their lives – and what can be darker than the emptying of one’s mind, the nearing umbrage of death’s oblivion – simple love can make a difference.

I have been calling my grandmother. The first day she was distressed. It had been a long and wearing day. Along with my aunt she was interviewing for someone to be a night watcher, someone who would spend the night in her house. “I get so confused,” she confessed. She was too. Reality seemed to be slipping. “I cannot remember what day of the week it is.” I told her without a calendar I'd be flummoxed too. Then suddenly her mind slipped. “I had to call you.” I had been the one to call her. “I've found your letter here.” The Christmas card I had sent in January. She read it. It really touched her. My heart sorely beat. “I'll let you get to bed now.” And the conversation wrapped up. We had only spoken for five minutes.

I called her the next day. The difference was immediate. “Hello!” Her voice was strong and bright. The relatives had visited, it had been a party for no particular reason. She was cheery. She remembered I was in college and asked about it. I said fine, though stressful and turned the question back on her. What had life been like when she went to school? And that’s when I got my story. She was a nursing student, at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. There were not a lot of positions open then for women, and she had no intention of becoming a teacher, so Nora Reed went to become a nurse. She spoke of boys. My ears pricked to attention, but really who knows what to ask their grandparents when it comes to sexual exploits. She married one of the interns. My grandfather. Of course that had not ended so smoothly, but as she put it, “I have seven beautiful children.” Then things began to slide again. She forgot Mathew’s name, “what’s his name’s marriage.” And she asked me if I was going to nursing school after high school. I tried to tell her I was studying film, but let it go when the word seemed unable to cross the airwaves. “You call me again. I'll be here.” So I will call her again. I will be the one to make her day.


nora reed burleigh

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Proposal—FND 112 Final - A narrative audio piece.

The first sounds you hear are of someone getting up to a microphone. The individual ones a water bottle, takes a drink and quietly clears her throat. The background hum of voices drops.

“Thank you,” she begins. “I wanted to read something a little different. Um, these here, are letters.” The rustle of papers confirms this. “My family and some of my dear friends wrote these. I just wanted to share my favorites. Right.” Then she, Sarah, proceeds to read. The first letter is from her sister, Rosie. It is cheerful. It is nostalgic. She reads some more. There is a theme. They miss Sarah. In fact, it is hard without her. In fact–it’s not been the same since she died.

This project will be a sort of frame story. Sarah is reading the speeches recited at her funeral. She is dead and this, perhaps is purgatory. There should not be an indication from the first letter that Sarah is anything but away. A sister misses her. No harm done. The next one will give an inclination that something is amiss. The third will increase this feeling. The fourth will give the game away. This should be the letter with the most dramatic heft. I am going to write something seriously sad. The fifth leaves us in no doubt that she is dead, but will be less heart wrenching. As the fifth almost ends, there will be the ring of a bell and a heavenly voice will call out, “Sarah Dale Drechsler. Peter is waiting.” or “Peter will see you now.” And she bows out, off to the heavenly gates. The buzz of an audience comes back. There is the tap of feet and perhaps the clunk of a microphone, as if someone else has taken her place on stage.

I think it’s a bomb-diggity idea. (Just saying.) I want to use five letters, from a sister, a father, a mother, a boyfriend and another one I haven’t decided yet. I think the mother’s should be the one that breaks hearts. The manner of Sarah’s death will probably not be conveyed. It might be interesting if each letter hinted to a different cause. I will try not to have the letters be too long either. No speeches to drag for days. I imagine that as a narrator (played by myself), Sarah will perhaps skip to her favorite bits and add commentary too. Honestly I love this idea and will start writing letters immediately.

Letter rough

Naomi, Sister: Writes about the scare at Grandma and Grandpa's cottage when Sarah was three. The family supposed Sarah had drowned in the lake after being unable to find her one day. Towards evening the girl is discovered in a nearby apple grove. She spent the day playing with some kittens whose mother had made a den beside one tree. "I never believed you were in trouble. I knew in my gut that my little sister would be fine."

Dyaln, Boyfriend: He writes a love letter. This is about the finer qualities of Sarah and the joy he feels for her. It borders on the poetic. He misses her dearly.

Mother: This is a sad letter. She is a distraught parent. My little girl, dead forever. Never to go to France, never to get married, to eat wedding cake, to have a baby girl of her own. Never to be an aunt, never to be a grandmother. Dead. Lost.

Father: Her father is a bit more of a scholar. He speaks with sorrow but reserve. No parent should bury a child. He quotes philosophy.

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Jules - Synthetic boobs and Sexual harassment.
The issue is very valid. My only concern for you is that you’re letting the design major in you shine when it comes to constructing the object (boobs in a showcase), but not necessarily considering what the audio will sound like.

Again, sexual harassment is no light matter. You’ve chosen to focus on how it effects women, thus the breasts. I’d recommend that in order to gather audio, you do not script insults. Instead, let people’s inner bigots come to the surface. People will be nasty naturally if given some provocation. Also for organizing your sounds, perhaps a few less detrimental comments, then a sharp one. That one can be a catalyst that sets off a detrimental cascade of insults. It builds to calamity then–well the ending is up to you. Something to try might involve having it come to a ring end. Or ending with the sounds of sobs. A broken woman.

Self - My project is the story of losing contact with my grandmother as she falls prey to dementia.
I will format it as a phone call that starts crystal clear, like she used to be. Then begins to lose signal. Static will build, along with shaky musical accompaniment (possibly unless this serves just to confuse the issue). At the end, I will compile her most uncertain comments and have them guttering with the phone. It will conclude with a “dropped call” notification.

Some challenges will be in deciding how to use the harp sound effects I recorded. I would like to use them, but may simply be enamored by how pretty they are rather than any actual value they might contribute to the piece. I also need to figure out how to make it sound like a phone call cutting out. See Mathew for this… An advantage I have is the excellent quality audio of my Grandmother.

This is something I feel strongly about. She is a woman I love and this will serve perhaps as a gross caricature of one of the least noble aspects of her current self.

I also need to finish my object, find a way to conceal the wires with a false bottom and continue decorating. There’s a long way to go yet…

Are you listening?

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Original recordings can be found at: