Recording loved ones creates lasting family keepsakes

Samantha Costanzo Carleton says that she is really glad she wasn’t able to answer the phone a few years ago when her grandmother, Grandma Lily, called to sing “Happy Birthday” to her. “Something told me ‘You’re gonna want to save this.’ So I did. And I was one hundred percent right, because unfortunately she passed away very suddenly not long after that.”

When Carleton and her sister were growing up, they would usually stay with their grandmother in the mornings before school. It was a family tradition that on their birthdays she would be already sitting at the piano as they walked in the door, ready to sing “Happy Birthday” and “Las Mañanitas,” which is the Latin American version of the song. “Having that voicemail, I just pull it up every so often because it’s a little piece of this tradition we had as little kids that she started … that I now keep forever.”

Expecting her first child when she was interviewed for this article, Carleton, who is 30, is thankful that she will also be able to pass this memory down to her daughter in the years to come. “I was really immersed in the Cuban culture growing up [in California], and being out in Massachusetts, as much as I love it, it’s hard to maintain those connections and traditions,” she says. “Every bit that I have, I’m filing away for [my daughter].” 

Carleton’s story illustrates something that more and more people are discovering for themselves: that audio recordings of our loved ones are just as crucial to preserving our memories of them as photographs or any other memento. In fact, they might be even more special.

How sounds evoke memories

Sensory memory is “a mental representation of how environmental events look, sound, feel, smell, and taste.” Vivid details are processed as working memory and then rapidly erode as the brain clears space to process other things. But there is a long-term component of sensory memory that is often left to poets to describe. In literature, it’s called the Proust effect — the moment when a taste or smell causes the mind to vividly recall a moment involuntarily. 

While our senses of taste and smell (grouped because they are biologically linked) are legendary for evoking powerful moments of recollection, sound is more vague, it would seem. In studies, scientists have discovered that the same part of our brain that’s in charge of processing our sense of hearing is also responsible — at least in part — for storing emotional memories. Certain sounds, then, can trigger emotions that might’ve been lying dormant, although they’re just softer, in a sense. The sound of a familiar voice is more likely to evoke a powerful feelings than distinct memories, but these are just as important to preserve.

Mature woman connecting with friends and family on Zoom
Photo: SDI Productions.

Ways to record your loved ones

Dozens of ways exist to record a loved one. Certain books, for instance, are designed for this very purpose. My husband’s grandfather, Papa Gene, used one to record himself reading “The Night Before Christmas” for my children before he passed. It’s easy to do: A microphone is embedded in the book’s spine, so you merely press a button and read aloud following the printed text. Each page is recorded individually and played automatically as the pages are turned. 

Interviewing family members to capture their oral history is another option. Carleton’s family members also have recordings of her great-grandmother, Sara Maria. She was staying with a cousin of Carleton’s grandmother. “[The cousin] made two video recordings asking her all these questions about her history and it’s amazing, because there’s so much info there that I didn’t know! Down to her full name, which was — in very classic Hispanic style — she had like 10 names,” Carleton says. Sara Maria was “an absolute force of nature,” and Carleton is thankful that videos exist today documenting her vivacious energy. “The best part for me is that it’s not just the history … She lived to be 103, and the recording was made [a few years before that], so you get so much of her personality,” she says. “She kept getting sidetracked and asking things like, ‘What are you drinking? Is that wine?!’” 

If you love someone with a memory-related condition like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, these recordings can be both challenging and poignant. When recording them, let the relative lead the discourse in order to avoid triggering any anxiety or frustration. You could ask questions like “When did you feel most alive?” or “Are there specific things you would want our family to know about you?”

For shorter snippets, like Carleton’s birthday songs, voicemails and voice memos are more than sufficient for preserving someone’s messages. Almost all smartphones and laptops are equipped with a voice memo app of some sort that could easily be used to save a digital recording. Along those same lines, your phone is a great tool for recording video, or you could use a hand-held digital recorder. If you don’t live near the person, you can easily record a Zoom call at the click of a button.

When to record your loved ones

There is no time like the present. Life famously throws curve balls when you least expect them, so if you want a recording of a loved one, don’t put it off. 

If you’re not feeling a strong sense of urgency, you could start a tradition linked to a holiday your family likes to celebrate. Christmas is a great time of year to do it, as you’re already gathered and prone to reminiscing about years past. You could have different family members take turns recording each other, or have a “guest of honor” that everyone interviews in turn each year. However you do it, you’ll end up with a strong oral history and an important family heirloom to pass down for generations.

At-home recording photo:

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