When I was a kid I regularly asked my parents to buy a video camera so I could experiment with making home movies. I had many ideas for characters, scenes, angles and even edits I would do, just sure it would result in hours of entertainment for family and friends. I also suspect there was also a part of me that wanted to capture on tape the times when my dad had his energy and playfulness, knowing that his ongoing cancer treatments meant plenty of other times when he wouldn't.
The answer was always no — it was a relatively big expense back then and not a high priority, all things considered — and so I had to let go of my filmmaking ambitions. But I still loved recording things, and would combine multiple tape recorders to make complex mixes and edits of conversations, songs and the world happening around me.
That enjoyment of working with audio (and, later once I could afford my own equipment, video) recordings of real life has stayed with me, and it's one of my favorite media for storytelling. I've soaked in the practices and personalities of radio and broadcast programs, I've listened to and produced podcasts since they were a thing, I've produced, edited or done voiceover work for various audio programs over the years, and I've come to appreciate the deep connection, history and emotion that comes out in the work of oral history projects like StoryCorps. The words people choose, the ones they avoid, the pauses, the chuckles, the wavering and breaks, the highs and lows...they all reveal so much about us.
Today marks two years since my mom passed away from her own struggle with cancer. But it also marks three years since I got to do the audio interview of a lifetime, with my mom.
As 2017 came to a close we didn't know how much time we had left together, but I knew there might be fewer times in the months ahead when she'd be fully herself and able to sit for an extended conversation "on the record." I approached her about the possibility delicately, mindful that she typically eschewed exercises in public self-examination, so I was pleasantly surprised when she agreed to it by email, with only a little hesitation: "Interview is fine as time permits. Not sure exactly what you want to collect but I’ll do it. I might need a glass of wine."
So during some lulls in the holiday celebrations and activities during her visit to our home that December, I set up my recording equipment and microphones in our living room and we sat down together to talk. In a couple sessions spread over several days, I got to ask her about her life growing up, her memories of my dad, what it was like to become a parent herself, navigating losing a spouse and single parenting, her professional journey and career, her travels, her friendships, her thoughts as she confronted her own mortality, her joys as a grandmother, and the bits of wisdom she wanted to pass along.
Here's a short excerpt:
No wine was consumed but we cried and laughed and everything in between. Sometimes we'd finish recording and then the conversation would continue, going deeper in a way where I had to figure out whether to ask if I could start recording again, or just take in the moment for what it was. I appreciated her honesty and her vulnerability as she let me ask probing questions and follow-ups. She knew she was giving us a special gift, a life and a history recalled in first person.
(In time I may find ways to edit, remix and share longer sections of our conversations. But for the most part it's not something mom intended to be public, instead seeing it as something that her kids and grand-children would hopefully enjoy having.)
Despite the many challenges of cheap, ubiquitous audio and video recording devices in modern life, I still envy the possibilities for creativity and learning they can offer. For a young person trying to understand the world around them, figuring out what's important, what's worth capturing, what's worth sharing, and what's worth just keeping as a personal memory seems like an essential skill set to develop. It wasn't one I was old enough to really have when my dad died (with or without a video camera) so I'm grateful to have figured out more of it by now.
For all of us, the opportunity to tell stories, record stories, share stories and learn from each others` stories feels incredibly powerful. It feels especially meaningful when it comes with the possibility of strengthening or deepening our connection and understanding with a loved one, and in a small way preserving their spirit and personality for when we cannot be with them any more.
Updated Dec 7: Edited to clarify that this post is not about publishing the full interview audio. Sorry for any confusion!