Saving My Mother’s Voice
A new kind of audio scrap-booking keeps memories of your loved ones alive
Last year I sat down with my iPhone and my mother. We sat across from each other at her dining room table in the Manhattan apartment in which I grew up. I scrolled to “voice memo,” leaned the phone up against the salt shaker and hit record.
“Tell me the one about your childhood friend, Mickey,” I said, prompting my mother to share one of my favorite stories.
I interviewed my mother for about an hour and half, making her retell stories I’d known my whole life. And, new details emerged. I hadn’t known, for example, that Mickey’s parents, from Italy, stomped wine grapes on the first floor of their Bronx house and Mickey and my mother were not allowed to help because they were girls.
I shot questions at her…
“What was it like working at your parent’s chicken store in Harlem?”
“How old were you when you went on your first date with Joe Finelli? Where’d you go?
And, I threw in some intimate ones…
“Did you have sex with anyone before Dad?”
“Did you ever smoke pot?”
My mother played along. We laughed. A lot. I asked more questions until it became just another regular conversation, like hundreds we’d had before at that oval table, the place where we’d chat about my day at school when I was a kid and about my children when I was an adult. It was at that table that she told me her stories of being groped by bosses before the #MeToo movement and of how, as a PR executive in the 60s, she got Art Buchwald of the Herald Tribune, to write about how the French should give up wine and drink chocolate milk.
I hadn’t told her why I was recording her answers. I still haven’t told her, though by now she has likely forgotten about that day. Her mind isn’t as sharp as it was only a year ago. I’m glad that after thinking about doing this — recording my mother telling her own stories — that I’d finally gotten my act together. It took me nearly a decade.
The idea came from a shiva call (a Jewish mourning ceremony) at my friend Dorann Penny’s house. Her mother had died suddenly. I had never met Dorann’s mother, but I remember choking up when I heard her mother’s voice in the room. A slideshow played on the TV. Dorann’s mother was narrating the story of her life.
“It was eerie to hear her voice but it was also comforting,” recalled Dorann in a recent conversation about that day. “Originally, my brother had made the visual collage of my mother’s life for her 80th birthday. When my mother passed away unexpectedly only five months later, my brother wanted to play the video again.”
Eight years ago, I decided I was going to interview my mother and last year, I finally did it. I’m not 100-percent clear on what took me so long. Perhaps the reality of what and why I was recording my mother’s stories; it was an acknowledgment of her mortality. That, plus my general tendency to procrastinate on things I find difficult and overwhelming. I’m just glad I did it before it was too late.
Perhaps I’ll put the voice to a collage of photos to show it at her shiva when that day comes; it will be something I can give to my children to show my future grandchildren. Or perhaps I will simply keep her voice with me. Her laugh. Her crazy Bronx accent where “Jennifer” becomes “Jennifa” and “Diana” turns into “Dianer.” And, her stories. Not my versions of her stories, but my mother’s stories just as she told them.
“Too often we don’t take the opportunity to hear stories,” Dorann says, grateful, too, for her mother’s voice.
How I Recorded My Mother’s Voice:
My process was simple. My phone was an old one, an iPhone 5, but it came with the Voice Memo app. I opened the app and hit record. The audio file automatically saved to my phone. To back up the file, make sure to upload it onto your computer or onto iCloud, especially before you get a new phone because the voice memos will not transfer (at least mine didn’t). To back up my audio files, I emailed them to myself as attachments and then downloaded those attachments onto my computer. Here’s a complete step-by-step guide to using Apple’s Voice Memo app. But, you can also upload the files to iTunes:
1. Connect your iPhone to your computer via USB or Wi-Fi sync.
2. Open iTunes.
3. Click the icon that represents your iPhone along the top menu bar.
4. Select the Music option from the sidebar.
4. Check the “Sync voice memos” box, if it’s not already checked.
Though it’s a pretty easy process, I spoke to Jamie Yuenger, founder of StoryKeep, which works with individuals and families to create documentary films of their lives, to get some of her top tips for recording others:
1. Be selective about your recording environment because a microphone hears everything — even a buzzing fridge.
2. Consider accessorizing with a tiny microphone that you can plug into your phone or use a digital recorder for better sound quality.
3. Be conscious of your role in the interview. “Try hard not to interrupt,” advises Yuenger. “Give non-verbal reactions, laugh with your face and eyes, not out loud.” One of the benefits of silence, Yuenger adds, is that people will often fill it in possibly adding a nuance to their story that you may not have known.
Overall, her most important piece of advice is to “go into it with a good heart and real curiosity and the other person will forget after about five minutes that their life is being recorded,” says Yuenger.
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