During this holiday season, think about capturing the gift of voice

In a recent post (Figuring out how to lead our lives is rarely easy; I guess it isn’t meant to be ), I spoke about the merit of asking parents and grandparents about their lives growing up, the kinds of questions those of us who left it too late wish we had asked.


An article in yesterday’s New York Times offered a suggestion along the same lines, something I had never thought of but sure wish I had.  This article, Recording a family member is a gift to your future self, by Jancee Dunn, talks about the specialness – the magic – of being able to hear a loved one’s voice when they are no longer with us.  I have memories of my parents, grandparents, and others near and dear that I cherish, but I can’t conjure up their voices in any way, shape, or form.  Wouldn’t that be something, to be able to hear the missed voices of those you loved again? Gosh, it would seem like they were still here with you. I know I wish I had that opportunity back, including with a few very dear friends and family members we lost in this year alone.  And it’s not even hard to do with all the technology at our fingertips, it’s just a question of thinking of it.  I’m going to take the liberty of sharing Ms. Dunn’s entire article, so you can decide for yourself if this is something you’d like to put on your to-do list for some older (or not so old) people who are near and dear to you.  The very last sentence in her article is particularly relevant at this time of year!

Every year at Christmas, my father has a ritual. He pours a large tumbler of Scotch, goes into his bedroom, shuts the door and listens to tapes I made of conversations with my grandma before she died 22 years ago. Back when her death was still raw, he would listen and cry. “Now I’m at the point where I hear her voice and just feel close to her again,” Dad told me.

When I was a young staff writer at Rolling Stone, I would sometimes get weary of trying to be hip. To center myself, I’d call my grandma, whom we called “Ma.” She lived in Sun City, Ariz., and we’d have a nice, soothing conversation about the hummingbirds that visited her feeder or her latest trip to get her hair “fixed” at the beauty parlor.

In that pre-cellphone era, I had a tape recorder attached to my phone for interviews. One day, when I remembered my dad telling me that he longed to hear his late father’s voice but had no recording of it, I asked my grandma if I could tape our chat. She said she would be delighted to do it. My dad keeps the three half-hour tapes that I made in a safety deposit box at the bank, and gets them out each December.

So, this season, I have a suggestion for you — consider recording an older relative for posterity. It doesn’t matter how you do it. If you have a smartphone at a family gathering, you can use the voice memo app. If your relative lives elsewhere, Zoom has a recording option.

When we record a conversation with a loved one, said Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition in Oregon, “it’s a gift that keeps on giving, because we extend their life beyond their literal physical presence. We still have access to them.”

Research has demonstrated that voices can be as distinct as fingerprints, said Laura K. Guerrero, director of engagement and innovation at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. A 2021 study published in Scientific Reports found that the sound of a mother’s voice can decrease pain and increase levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone; an empathetic phone call, according to a 2021 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, can reduce anxiety and depression.

Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor, is the host of a new podcast called All There Is With Anderson Cooper, which is a thoughtful exploration of loss (his father died at 50 while undergoing heart surgery in 1978; he lost his brother Carter to suicide ten years later and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, died in 2019). In one episode, Cooper recounts how a few years ago, a radio interviewer sent him a link to a segment he had done with Cooper’s father Wyatt. It was the first time that Cooper had heard his dad’s voice since he was 10.

Cooper didn’t mention how this event made him feel so I phoned him to ask. “It was extraordinary to hear,” he said. “Suddenly my dad’s voice filled my office. It’s hard to explain the power of hearing somebody’s voice. Obviously, I cried.”

What made it even more impactful, Cooper added, “is that he was being interviewed about a book he had written, and he was actually talking about my brother and me, and what he hoped for us.” He paused. “It was like suddenly a portal opened, and he was alive and talking about my brother and me in the present tense. To hear him saying my name and my brother’s name …”

Cooper’s voice broke. “Excuse me. Sorry.” He began to cry. “It took me back into this lost world. I’m the last one left from that nuclear family, and I’m the only one who remembers it. To have him speaking from that time is like evidence that it actually existed.”

If you’d like some reliable questions to get started, Dr. Neimeyer suggested those from a psychological intervention called Dignity Therapy. It was developed by Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, to interview people at the end of their lives. They include: Tell me a little about your life history, particularly the parts that you think are the most important. When did you feel most alive? Are there specific things that you would want your family to know about you? What have you learned about life that you would like to pass along to others? What do you feel most proud of?

I would add some questions I asked my grandma: When did you first feel like an adult? Tell me about a childhood friend who meant a lot to you. How did you meet Granddad?

While questions that trigger memories are a reliable way to get people to open up, older relatives with cognitive impairment should be approached differently, said Laura N. Gitlin, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University.

“One thing you don’t want to do is keep saying, ‘Do you remember when we went here or there?’ Questions about memories can heighten anxiety and frustration, because it can sound like you’re testing them,” she said.

You can also have family members take turns interviewing an older relative. “It would be a great project just to have people record something around a circle at Christmas time, and then you have a vocal scrapbook,” said Dr. Guerrero.

What do you think? If the opportunity arises for some of you over the holidays, you might want to get out a handy-dandy recording device.  You will be recording a gift for posterity. 🙂 ❤

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41 Responses to During this holiday season, think about capturing the gift of voice

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    Yes, it’s strange how this isn’t common practice really. I’ve helped a number of people write memoirs and only once did I consider recording a companion DVD to go with it, ideal for the old lady’s extended family (I didn’t go through with the idea). It’s easily done these days and could be an amazing comfort for some.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Victoria says:

    Lovely…so very lovely. Thanks for sharing, Jane! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wynne Leon says:

    I totally agree, Jane! Lovely article!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great idea! I hadn’t thought of that either.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A great idea. I was just thinking about this. My dad’s voice was very distinctive. I would love to have a recording of him. I feel like sometimes I’m losing it, but then I’ll hear a song (usually a country song) and I feel like I hear him all over again. A great idea coming into the holidays.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Margaret says:

    Yes, a great idea Jane.
    Interestingly it’s voices I remember, even when I’ve forgotten faces, names and everything else!
    It’s the voice that is familiar and stays with me. Think I’m going to have my phone on record this Christmas, the only problem being I’m either the eldest or 2nd eldest there!!!! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      That’s an unusual talent you have there, Margaret, one to be cherished. I can recognize voices, but I can’t conjure them up. And, no worries, the eldests are allowed to be the instigators!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Margaret says:

        Mmm … I can’t usually conjure them up either. It’s when everything else is forgotten the voice remains with me, so when I hear it again I know I’ve had some sort of connection with that person, whether it be watching a drama, theatre or personal contact.
        Thanks for encouraging clarification of thoughts Jane.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Dr. John Persico Jr. says:

    Thanks Jane, a wonderful and beautiful idea. It made me think how much I wish I had done that years ago with people I loved and now dimly remember. John

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Bernie says:

    30+ years ago I requested from my parents and my in laws that the kids didn’t need more toys but rather their stories recorded. My mom, 30 years later, mostly has hers done. My dad was blind and recorded his but recorded over the same side twice, got frustrated and never did it again. I have a lot of his story on an envelope. My in laws are both gone and sadly no one ever recorded their stories. I do have an old 8mm video recording of my folks at Christmas and we talked about stocking and presents etc. It’s in the pile of stuff to be digitized. As to our grandkids– well I’ve written a LOT for them to read but we should do a recording.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. heimdalco says:

    It’s such a wonderful idea. A friend of ours actually has a small side business … he goes to a home & does an interview with people & a video at their request … for posterity. Not only has his small business been well received but HE has enjoyed it.

    After I lost my mom I realized when we were going through her home that her answering machine had her out-going message on it. While it is just a brief message, it is her voice & is comforting 18 years later. I wish I’d thought to record a conversation with her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for these great comments, Linda. What a special business to have thought of. I can understand why he would get a lot out of the sessions himself. Wow. And you were very smart to have saved your mother’s voice message. My husband was just thinking about how friends of ours erase those messages because they can’t bear hearing the voice message when they’ve just lost their life partner. But as understandable as that is, it’s a shame to lose that brief recording insofar as it’s such a powerful memento.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Lookoom says:

    Taping, writing, which is better for the memory. For the voice the emotion comes from the identification of a known voice. Writing can create a more lasting link across generations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Interesting and valid comparison. Writing can for sure create a more lasting link across generations. You’re right, the recording is more valuable (or invaluable) for those who can recognize the voice from past connections. My Dad has been gone for nearly 50 years and being able to hear a recording of his voice would be extraordinary. But, as you imply, it would hold little to no value to my kids or grandkids. Interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Yes, more activity in this front would be wonderful as voices are a very powerful connector to where we’ve come from and how our past has shaped us. We’ve done a little of this and used the recordings in a family history story, with photos and commentary we made on DVD. Some voices & stories from those no longer with us were included. A good reminder to do more of this! I have no recordings of my parent’s voices but have excellent aural memories of my mum singing and my dad playing the piano, which is now mine. A tinkle of the ivories can bring back a lot for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jane, I loved this idea, and my blog is actually a biography of sorts for my children and grandchildren. I’ve kept journals and calendars for years and they have been typed and put in binders for my family when I’m gone. I also have picture albums that I’ve been adding side notes to for the kids. My husband knew hardly anything of his grandparents and my mom, and her siblings would not share much about their father and his family so I’m finding all I can to go in those journals and albums. When growing up I heard a lot of stories from my paternal grandparents but for the life of me I can’t remember many of those stories at all. Maybe my books will be enjoyed by my grandkids and their kids at some point.
    Thank you for the post and Merry Christmas to you and yours!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I think it is an excellent idea. How I wish I had recorded my grandmother and her sister, my great aunt. My grandmother was born in 1911, and what changes she saw! Same with my mom, who was born in 1936.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I think this is a wonderful idea. A former boss of mine took cell phone videos of his mother working in the kitchen for this very reason. She passed away a few years later, and he has this marvelous ten minute video of her preparing dinner and talking to him. To say I’m jealous is an understatement. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Jean says:

    Well, it would be my mother….in Chinese. Not sure, if she wants to be recorded. It’s kinda culturally very different for the older generation to record audio.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Belladonna says:

    My husband is so good at this. He has done this throughout our marriage.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. A very powerful gift. I recorded my father, and I cherish hearing his voice. I hope I can get my mother recorded before it’s too late. She doesn’t like sharing her story, but at least I have her saved voice-mail messages.
    Great post, Jane 💜

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh my, I envy you your recording of your father and the possibility of a recording of your mother. Voicemail messages would do the trick. To suddenly be able to hear my parents saying anything right now (e.g., “I’m sorry but we can’t come to the phone right now”) would be a miracle.


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