fb-pixel Skip to main content

Why you should record your holiday dinner conversations

Audio recordings of loved ones are time capsules that will bring alive voices we will one day ache to hear.

"In the years to come, these recordings that contain my mother’s breath will remain precious to me."Axxel6/Adobe/DisobeyArt - stock.adobe.com

During a weekend visit to New York last winter, I recorded my son’s impressions of the city. I began by asking where we were. I thought he would simply say “Manhattan” or “at the hotel,” but Leo, then 9, said, “We’re in a hotel in New York City, in North America, on a planet known as Earth, in a galaxy known as the Milky Way, in a universe known as the Universe.”

When I became a mother in my late 30s, I wanted to do more than take photos or videos of my son. I wanted to remember his speech development by preserving his sounds. So I recorded him.


Jay Allison, the founder of “The Moth Radio Hour,” once told me that humans relate to sound in a way that’s distinct from other media.

“Sound literally gets inside of you — it inhabits you,” Allison said. “It can break your heart. That’s different from photos, which remain on the outside.”

I recorded Leo’s snores, his gurgles, his first words. Some recordings are filled with his guffawing as he watches TV. His belly laughs are a tonic.

Recording has been a tradition in my family. My late father recorded conversations with my sisters and me on a handheld tape deck. Piling into his den, we crowded around his desk as he pressed the two large play and record buttons. Later, we would listen back to the tape with glee.

Far too late, I grasped the importance of recording my mother and father. If pure joy compelled me to record Leo, pure dread inspired me to begin recording my parents a few years ago. What would happen to their stories when they died?

Before it was too late, I needed to piece together one bit of crucial family history that had never been fully explained: What had happened when my mother’s younger brother died in a car accident at age 18?


She rarely mentioned him during my childhood, except to say that my grandparents never recovered from the loss of their oldest son, whom everyone called Spike. I only gleaned a few snippets about him during the adults’ cocktail hour at my grandparents’ house: He had an outgoing personality and was a football star.

My mother was 19 when he died. Now, in part because of my recordings, I see his death, in 1957, as an event that has hovered over her entire adult life.

Recording my mother’s words made sense for another reason: Video is for action, and her action days are behind her. At the time of my last good recording, she was 83. She sat down in her chair at the foot of the stairs, and, bathed in the glow of a floor lamp, she lit a cigarette. She was game to talk about anything but the present or recent past, which dementia had begun to scramble in her brain. More or less housebound, she spent most days chain-smoking and dozing off, unsure of the month or sometimes even the season.

Her mental fog would soon force us to move her to a nursing home, but when I asked about the circumstances of Spike’s accident, barely a second elapsed before she began reciting a chronology of events. It was as if she was supplying answers she’d had at the ready for decades.


The accident had occurred during the summer. Spike was driving a convertible. A top student, he’d been given the car as a graduation gift from my grandparents, following his acceptance at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. He’d been killed instantly when his car collided with an embankment and flipped over.

The funeral was held at his Catholic high school. “Oh God, thousands of people came,” my mother told me. “Thousands.” It doesn’t matter that she’s likely wrong about the number — it matters only that in her mind’s eye, legions of people came to pay their respects to the luminous brother she’d lost.

It wasn’t until months later, when I listened again to the recording, that I discovered a moment I had overlooked. After the funeral, my mother told me, they drove out to the cemetery, which was some distance away. At one point during the muggy hour-long drive, the road curved, and my mother turned to look behind her. And that’s when she glimpsed through the back windshield the headlights of the dozens and dozens of cars following the hearse to her brother’s final resting place.

More than anything else, that image crystallized for me the tragic loss she’d borne for 65 years.

Recording affords us the ability to save not just our parents’ voices but their stories.

“People would tell us, ‘I have a recording of my father’s voice, and it’s all I have left,’” Allison told me. “It was an actual part of the person — it contained his breath.”


In the years to come, these recordings that contain my mother’s breath will remain precious to me. And the little that I learned about Spike furnishes me with an outline of the uncle I never knew and his role in my mother’s life.

This holiday season, consider pressing “record” on your smartphone when you’re around the table. The sounds of gathering — the voices, the stories, the ambient clatter — will fill an audio time capsule you’ll cherish on some future day when you’re longing in vain to hear a loved one’s voice.

Jeanne Bonner is a 2022 NEA fellow in literature and a former NPR station reporter.