Why You Should Record Your Loved Ones’ Stories This Holiday Season

Stories are what make us human, and everyone has a story to tell.

I grew up listening to stories. True stories. Like the story about my great-grandmother, who had given birth to twenty-two children, and still managed to own five thriving businesses. Or the story about my grandfather, a twin, who as a newborn was almost buried alive — thought to have been stillborn like his brother. And who could forget the story about my father, who fell 130 feet down an elevator shaft, stood up, and walked away.

There’s the story about my uncle, who as a young boy in Ireland, was chopping wood and his younger sister’s head got in the way. Ah, but sure, she turned out to be fine, once they stitched up her scalp, of course.

There are plenty of humorous stories that end in sidesplitting laughter. And some that tug at your heartstrings, make your cheeks hurt from smiling. But there are also stories that catch you in the throat, sting your eyes with sorrow. Make you want to reach out and hold the storyteller, just to ease their pain a bit. To share in it — to lift their burden.

There are plenty of stories if you listen closely enough. Every person you encounter has a story to tell, and you’d be surprised that the people you share your holiday meals with have quite a few.

That’s why I decided, about fifteen years ago, to start recording my family members’ stories. Before iPhones were invented, I sat down with a cassette tape recorder, listening as my father recalled his wild childhood in Ireland to his harrowing days on construction sites in Chicago while getting distracted along the way, ranting about politics. Note: Patience is required when recording one’s family.

When he told me about the time he and his sister hid their favorite butter in the family piano so their strict aunt wouldn’t find it, I was curious to hear his sister’s side of the story. So I recorded her too. There’s something so sweet about listening to your sixty-something year old father and aunt talk about sneaking around together as children. Hearing the way they spoke about each other when the other person wasn’t around warmed my heart. There was definitely giggling involved. And that glint in the eyes you get when you’re remembering something silly.

So I began to go through each and every relative — my dad’s four siblings, my mother’s three siblings, my dad’s cousins — and even began interviewing my husband’s grandparents. I still have a few uncles and aunts to interview, but I’m hoping to record them this year.

Recording your loved ones is easy, and anyone can — and should — do it. All you have to do is sit down with your laptop or phone and hit “record.” You can have a list of questions, or ask them to start at the beginning and end at the present. Ask them about a specific event, or just let them talk, and see where their memories lead.

If you’re ambitious, you can record your family stories into the Library of Congress through StoryCorps. StoryCorps has done an excellent job inviting everyday people to record their loved ones. They know that stories matter, and that everyone has a story to tell.

I try to encourage everyone I meet to record a conversation with a loved one before it’s too late. You don’t have to get their whole life story, but that can be fun, too. As the storytellers age, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will be able to learn about their family history while also feeling connected to the storyteller. And then there will come a time when the storyteller isn’t around anymore. Hearing their voice, remembering their memories with them, is sure to bring comfort. It’s a gift that lasts for generations.

Recorded stories aren’t just for the listener, though. Recorded stories are for the storyteller, too. Sharing memories and feelings is therapy for the soul. What’s better than feeling heard? Feeling understood? Feeling like your memories are worth remembering?

For a storyteller has an important job. In ancient Ireland, a seanchaí was a respected member of a clan who would orally recite history, myth, and folklore to chieftains and townspeople. In modern times, you might call someone a seanchaí if you think they’re talented at the art of bullshitting. Either way, a seanchaí has a revered job telling stories, whether true or stretched.

Because stories are important. They’re how we connect to each other, how we develop empathy, and understanding. They’re what make us human.

So if you have a spare minute, grab your iPhone, your laptop, or some sort of recording device and get your loved ones’ voices and stories to last forever. You won’t regret it.

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