Every year at Christmas my father has a ritual. He pours himself a tall glass of Scotch, goes into his bedroom, closes the door and listens to tapes I made of conversations I had with my grandmother before she died 22 years ago. Back then, when her death was still raw, he listened and wept. “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 permanent writer at Rolling Stone, Sometimes I got tired of trying to be hip. To center myself, I would call my grandma, who we called “Ma.” She lived in Sun City, Arizona, and we had a nice, soothing chat about the hummingbirds visiting her feeder or her recent trip to get her hair “fixed” at the beauty salon.
In the days before cell phones, I had a tape recorder connected to my phone for interviews. One day, remembering my father telling me that he longed to hear his late father’s voice but didn’t have a recording of it, I asked my grandmother if I could record our conversation. She said she would like to do it. My father keeps the three half-hour tapes I made in a safe deposit box at the bank and takes them out every December.
So this season I have a suggestion for you – consider capturing 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 goes on and on as we extend their life beyond their literal physical presence. We still have access to it.”
Research has shown that voices can be as diverse 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 reduce pain and increase levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone; According to a 2021 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, an empathetic phone call can reduce anxiety and depression.
Anderson Cooper, the CNN host, is the host of a new podcast, All There Is With Anderson Cooper, which is a thoughtful exploration of loss (his father died in 1978 at the age of 50 while undergoing heart surgery; he lost his brother Carter committed suicide ten years later and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt died in 2019). In one episode, Cooper tells how a few years ago a radio interviewer sent him a link to a segment he did with Cooper’s father Wyatt. It was the first time Cooper had heard his father’s voice since he was 10.
Cooper didn’t mention how he felt about the event, so I called him to ask. “It was extraordinary to hear,” he said. “Suddenly my father’s voice filled my office. It’s hard to explain the power of hearing someone’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 I 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 I in the present tense. Hearing him say my name and my brother’s name…”
Cooper’s voice cracked. “Sorry. We’re sorry.” He started crying. “It brought me back to this lost world. I’m the last one left of that nuclear family and I’m the only one who remembers it. Having it speak from that time is like proving it actually existed.”
If you want a few reliable questions to start with, Dr. Neimeyer suggested such from a psychological intervention called Dignity Therapy. It was made by Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, to interview people at the end of their lives.
These include: Tell me about your life story, especially the parts you think are most important. When did you feel most alive? Are there certain things you would like your family to know about you? What have you learned about life that you would like to pass on to others? What are you most proud of?
I want to add some questions I asked my grandmother: When did you first feel like an adult? Tell me about a childhood friend who meant a lot to you. How did you meet grandpa?
While questions that trigger memories are a reliable way to get people to open up, older relatives with cognitive impairments 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 were here or when we were there?’ Questions about memories can increase 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 if people would just circle around around the Christmas season and you’d have a scrapbook of vocals,” said Dr. Guerrero.
An audio time capsule can be recorded with anyone you love. Lately I’ve started interviewing my parents. My current favorite question is the one I asked my mom for Thanksgiving: What memory always makes you laugh?
She told me that her reserved, church-going Alabama mother loved to watch TV wrestling matches with lavishly pompadoured star Gorgeous George. “Mom closed the curtains when Gorgeous George was on,” Mom said, “so the neighbors wouldn’t see.”
When my mother, who has lived in the Northeast for many years, talks about her childhood in Alabama, her southern accent immediately comes back—a loveable quirk I’ll save for the future, a part of her I’ll never lose.
Do you freeze when you’re busy? This is how you can save yourself.
Especially at this time of year, your to-do list can go on forever. Dana G. Smith delves into that feeling of helplessness, also known as “task paralysis” or “overwhelm freeze.” Her brain, she writes, sees this list as a threat, and her executive center loses control. Here’s how to work through it.
How to save yourself from “task paralysis”
Hanging nose hair, spiky ear hair – what’s up?
Q: I’m a male in my 50’s and I’ve noticed hair sprouting in weird places like the tips and insides of my ears and inside my nose. Is that normal? Why is this happening? How can I get rid of it?