Last week I had to bury my beloved 95 year old aunt, Marlis, a person so close to me that I hesitate calling her an ‘aunt’. Technically, she was my mother’s aunt. She was the one who saw my mother struggling as a 24-year-old unmarried student with a newborn at a time and place when women with babies were neither single nor university students. “Come live with us.” Marlis said, and we did. She helped her husband, a doctor, to run a surgery in their own house. Their home’s infrastructure absorbed us without fuss. There I learned to make cookies, stamp prescriptions and build doll-houses with pharmaceutical packing material; I was spoiled by my uncle’s nurses and patients and had a room facing a large garden with a little stream, a tiny fish pond and a fireplace.
Hardly anything affected my young life as much as my aunt and uncle’s generosity both in spirit and in deed. They took time to read, draw and paint with me, they took me outdoors, they taught me to appreciate music, teaching and travel. It was an old-fashioned setup compared to how we raise children today. Life was analog, knowledge was solid, food was local.
Until Spring of this year, Marlis and I sat and read together whenever we were alone. She was a passionate reader with a perfect intonation when she read out loud, which she loved to do. Listening to her was a joy. Whether we read literature, philosophy or a newspaper column, my experience of the text was richer and more colorful when she read it out loud. The funny parts were a bit funnier. Thoughtful passages gained more depth. Marlis’s voice was her art. And that voice never really aged.
I thought about the human voice when I stood at my aunt’s coffin to say goodbye to a long and fulfilled life. Our voices set us apart. A voice is as unique as a fingerprint. The voice of a person, I thought, is a deeply personal expression of his or her inner life. It conveys the full range of our feelings often with subtlety and nuance, it carries meaning, intention and expression more than the actual words we choose. Despite how sophisticated an instrument it is, it seems to me that we pay little attention to voices. And maybe that is its magic. The voice is so true that it needs no embellishments.
We can get face-lifts, replace hip joints and have hair implants, but the voice is a territory that modern self-improvement industries have left alone. A person’s voice is a sacred place. I’ve always had a strong preference for audio-sensations over visual or, using the words of a Swiss specialist in sensory diagnostics who I happened to see decades ago, I am an “ear-person”, an Ohrenmensch. My aunt and I were a lucky match.
With Marlis, an unusually gifted voice died. I never made any recordings of her although we talked about it often. It fell through the cracks, for the better maybe. Nonetheless, I see now, looking back, that my aunt’s voice was the source of her creativity and art. She was able to elevate a text, a poem or a story into a sublime experience for those who had the privilege to listen. She could do this until she was 94 years old, despite growing increasingly frail. In those moments, she was fully present, just as present as she was when she read to me as a child, in her home, so many years ago.
Of those countless afternoons and evenings throughout my life – until March of this year! – I remember quite a few. My aunt’s voice was her heritage, and she used it well. A voice is a great way to stay alive in memory. Thank you, my dear. I will hear you as long as I live.