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 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.
An audio time capsule can be recorded with anyone you love. Lately I have begun to interview my parents. My current favorite question is the one I posed to my mom at Thanksgiving: What memory always makes you laugh?
She told me that her demure, churchgoing Alabama mother loved to watch wrestling matches on TV starring the lavishly-pompadoured star Gorgeous George. “Mama would shut the drapes when Gorgeous George was on,” said Mom, “so the neighbors wouldn’t see.”
When my mom, who has lived in the Northeast for many years, speaks about her Alabama childhood, her Southern accent comes right back — an endearing quirk that I will store away for the future, a part of her that I’ll never lose.
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