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If a picture is worth a thousand words, a recording is infinitely valuable

Posted June 9

I forget a lot of things.

When I reach into my bank of memories, a lot of times it feels like searching through a dark and dusty room that’s mostly vacant, with a few experiences scattered around the corners. I have a few highlights from over the years, and some permanent reminders, such as the scar on the inside of my bottom lip that came from falling off a short wall when I was a toddler.

Those permanent reminders are very helpful. I know I had chicken pox because of the little circle on my right wrist, and I remember scraping the top of my foot on the bottom of a pool in San Diego because of the scar that was left behind.

There are other reminders, too, that are a little less permanent but equally effective. I have a very clear memory of a hot, sultry night in my elementary school gym in Oklahoma from more than 30 years ago because of a video my parents made. They borrowed a friend’s camera, which, back then, was so big it sat like a box on your shoulder with a viewfinder that lined up with your eye. My father ran the camera while my mother played the piano and accompanied my elementary school’s production of "Cinderella."

I remember sitting on those metal seats, feeling the energy in the air and waiting for the students to come out from behind the makeshift cardboard curtain hiding the staging area behind the risers. My sister was a piece of laundry for Cinderella’s work scene, and she had socks pinned to her white T-shirt and a washcloth on her head like a hat. I remember those things because I watched that video over and over when I was a kid.

At the end, after the play was over, my exasperated sister glared at the camera and demanded my father to stop recording.

“Turn it off!” she said in her thick, Oklahoma accent. “O-eyff-eyff! Turn it off!”

It’s funny how that one night and those few hours encapsulate so much of my childhood because of that movie.

Journals are wonderful, but there’s something particularly transporting about seeing and hearing your past.

As a parent raising young children in an age of accessible technology, I have more Instagram and Facebook videos of my kids than my parents ever had of me, but if I could do one thing over I would go back and record even more.

I have a little, old-school digital recorder that I bought as a cub reporter. I took it to every interview and kept it in my purse in case I never needed to use it. One day, my then 18-month-old daughter was talking from the back seat, and I grabbed the recorder to catch her little voice. The recording is about 3 seconds long.

“Airplane, mommy!” is all she says, but with just those words I can see in my mind exactly where I was driving on the road. I can remember her enthusiastic sweetness and feel her desire to connect with me. I can even remember feeling some frustration that I didn’t always have something to say back to her. That one-second recording makes me want to go back, and go forward, responding more, relishing those moments more.

In the moment, I probably had a million things going through my head. I was driving, I can imagine that I was stressing out about one thing or another, and I give myself kudos for having the presence of mind to record that quick second — at least I wasn’t totally disconnected. But still, it’s a brief reminder that I have those moments now, too.

The value of a recording is that it isolates a few seconds from the rest of the noise of the day. Gone are the distractions and tension of that moment. What’s left is my little girl feeling the thrill of seeing an airplane and talking about it for the first time of her life.

It makes my dark and dusty bank of memories so much brighter.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.

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