The treasure, and surprise, of the family Victrola

Posted 12/17/20

My cousin Gail down in Wilmington is the family crier.

Not that she endlessly sheds tears over our family, but rather she is like our town crier, as if she were wearing a tricorn hat, swinging a …

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The treasure, and surprise, of the family Victrola

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My cousin Gail down in Wilmington is the family crier.

Not that she endlessly sheds tears over our family, but rather she is like our town crier, as if she were wearing a tricorn hat, swinging a bell and broadcasting announcements about births, deaths, marriages and all things affecting my mother’s side of the family. She even sends us letters via the U.S. Mail, knowing that while many older members of our extended family are not computer literate, we certainly know how to read and are capable of writing her back. I received one of her family newsletters with the big news: the family Victrola record player is up for grabs.

The family Victrola originally belonged to my great-aunts, two former Latin teachers in the Durham school system named Susie and Tee. There was a third sister named Augusta, whom everyone called Gussie. She was a Latin teacher, too. Susie and Tee looked down on Gussie because she married a widower in her autumn years. He was an Alston from Durham, and according to family lore, these two gray-haired lovebirds then proceeded to have a gay old time without Susie and Tee. Gussie died a full decade before I was born but her two sisters lived into their ’90s, which is no mean feat considering they were all born around the time Thomas Edison patented the light bulb. The Victrola is a wind-up model. I am proud to give it a home.

Susie and Tee and their brother, my invalid grandfather, are fixtures of my earliest childhood memories. They lived together in a whitewashed two-story house on Club Boulevard in Durham that my family lovingly referred to as “the Mausoleum.” The place is still there, between Watt’s Hospital and the municipal reservoir. The old hospital was repurposed into the N.C. School of Science and Math, and the city gets its water from Falls Lake now.

The exterior of the edifice was cheerless but sturdy; the interior dark and dreary in a “Fall of the House of Usher” meets “The Addams Family” sort of way. Antimacassars and doilies covered the arms and backs of richly upholstered furniture. Smoky, sooty portraits of my ancestors hung on the walls, each of them wearing ruffs and bloused cuffs and those broad-brimmed, cavalier hats like old Dutchmen. They seemed painted in shades of Van Dyke browns except for their blue eyes, eyes that followed me around the room. Susie and Tee never played their Victrola when I was there. The ticking of the Grandfather clock as the only noise I remember. I remember Susie in her rocker, nodding back and forth between reading and sleeping, waking with the toll of the towering clock, reading for a few minutes, then drifting off again until the next time the clock struck. Tee played solitaire unceasingly. My father told me she cheated at every hand. Octogenarians were no fun at all to me back then. It is a scene that has taken me 50 years for me to appreciate.

Back then, the living room windows looked out onto a barren front yard of clay and sand and acorns; shade from two great oaks smothered the patches and tufts of grass in shadows all day long. As a boy I made sincere attempts to play in that yard, but all the acorns on the ground hurt my knees. The new owners of the old manse have worked wonders, cutting down one of the massive oaks to allow luxurious sunlight on lush green grass. They also painted the house a cheerful pastel, giving the place a warmth I never felt when I was a boy.

The Victrola is freestanding and made of mahogany, neither of which is remarkable, but it comes with a matching cabinet for storing records, and inside this cabinet is the treasure: dozens and dozens of 78 rpm shellac records, each as thick as a dinner plate, most of them single-sided, all of them housed inside three-ring binders made of ancient, disintegrating leather and cardboard. There are a couple of 45s and a few double-sided LPs, but most were pressed decades before commercial radio. Labels like “Romeo” and “Decca” and “Cameo” and “Victor” declare the records to be fox-trots or waltzes or one-steps or spirituals or operas. But never mind the Bing Crosby and the Gene Autry; the best record was at the bottom of the pile: “Music to Strip By” includes such songs as “Girdles Away” and “Second Honeymoon.”

I bet that one belonged to Gussie.

Dwayne Walls Jr., a contributor to the News + Record, has previously written a story about his late father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and a first-person recollection of 9/11 for the newspaper. He and his wife Elizabeth live in Pittsboro.


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