The Twenty-Sixth Letter: The Family Circle


Dear Daughters,

Occasionally when the toddler is quiet, I send the preschooler to go find her and report back to me what is going on. The other day, I was told that baby girl had found some pretty ribbon she wasn’t supposed to have.

Well now, we don’t have much ribbon lying around the house, so I knew I needed to go check on the situation.

That “pretty ribbon” was the innards of a cassette tape.

I’m not completely sure where the cassette had been stored, but she’d found it, and she’d pulled on the ribbon. And pulled. And pulled. And pulled. It was creased and knotted.

I was determined to save that tape. With a clicky pen, I wound and wound it back up, only to discover–when the cassette player kept eating the tape and rudely spitting it out at me–that I’d wound it the wrong way. After a texting conversation with your uncle Stephen about the engineering of cassette players, I persevered.

And so, after years of this cassette tape being hidden away in some box–a box apparently within reach of a toddler–I’ve been listening to some of my favorite old timey music again.

This is a Family Circle tape, girls. Family Circle.

My parents and aunts and uncles, in the 1970s, had some radical Jesus-movement-conversion experiences, or so I take it. And, coincidentally, they could all sing harmony. So they did what any group of vocally talented, excited-about-Jesus twenty-somethings would do: they started a traveling gospel music group.

The Family Circle eventually ended up with a painted Coach bus, complete with living space and multiple bedrooms inside, matching outfits for the adults, and kids who could sing off-key kids songs. After my youngest cousin was born, there were 13 of us in that bus.

I was born into the middle of that, bless their hearts.

On weekends and various vacations throughout the year, we travelled as far north as New Hampshire, where my grandfather owned a campground, down the coast to Florida, where he was a snowbird in the winter, and played at churches and campgrounds for love offerings. We had a dark green velvety tablecloth on the merchandise table–records, cassettes, eventually CDs were for sale. I don’t know why that very-seventies tablecloth sticks out in my memory.

Like many of my cousins, I had my own song for awhile, called “My Mommy Told Me Something.” But we kids mostly sang group songs like the old Gaither “I am a promise, with a capital ‘P,’ I am a promise, full of possibility…”

My nuclear family withdrew from the group when I was in elementary school because of my parents’ marital difficulties, but the Family Circle kept singing for many decades, even after all the cousins were grown.

They came out of retirement to sing at Pappy Sands’s funeral a few years ago. That was the last time I’d heard any of the old songs.

But gosh, I love the old songs.

What’s extra special about this cassette to me is that my parents’ voices are on it. I can hear my mom’s steady alto throughout. And on one song, I can hear my dad’s two-line baritone solo.

I could not believe the wash of emotions I felt when that tape began to play for the first time.

I’ve known these songs my whole life–every word, of every song. As long as I could sing, I’ve been singing this music.

But these last few weeks, I’ve been hearing these songs differently. I hear them and realize that all my aunts and uncles are grandparents now. Their voices are so young on these recordings. So clear and so young.

My cousins’ children are older than I was when we left the group, and yet I remember so clearly the conversations we had back then, young as I was, squished into the dining area of the bus. I remember sitting up beside my dad on the big red velvet navigator chairs. I remember my bottom bunk across from my cousin Justin. I remember watching movies in the back and getting foot massages from Aunt Diana, who was a reflexologist. I remember singing the Twelve Days of Christmas–each of us having our own day in order of our ages, so the kids all got to sing many times and the parents–my dad was the twelfth day–hardly had to sing at all. I was “two turtle doves.” Justin was the youngest then.

I’m glad I found this tape. I haven’t seen some of my cousins in years, and we won’t be traveling home to Pennsylvania at Christmas this year because of your dad’s job. But this tape reminds me how much I love these people, and how much I miss these people.

This is a special part of my story, and I hope you can feel how it is part of your story, too. Because that’s how our memories should be, girls. I want you to know my stories.

And I want you to know my songs.

Which is why I keep playing this tape. It probably doesn’t have many years left, you know.

I talked to my aunt on the phone the other week and asked if she had copies of some of the old Family Circle sheet music. I was thinking maybe I’ll find a way to sing it some day.



Your Momma