Listen Up, It’s the National Day of Listening

UPDATED: November 21, 2019
PUBLISHED: November 28, 2014

It’s the day after Thanksgiving—Black Friday as well as the National Day of Listening. The latter encourages us to take a little time to sit with Mom, Grandma, a friend or the butcher who works at the deli down the street to record a meaningful conversation. Chances are you’re with someone you rarely see this holiday weekend, so what have you always wanted to ask this person—and record for posterity?

Doug Orcutt asked his mother, Jane, When did you know that Dad was going to be the one that you’d marry someday?
Ronald Clendenin Jr. asked his wife, Aletta, What is your earliest memory of me? And do you have any regrets?
Tamera Henry asked her father, Eric, What is your most vivid memory as a child?

“There’s no wrong way of doing this. Just listen closely and ask the questions you’ve always wanted to ask,” advises a tutorial by John White of the nonprofit oral history project StoryCorps. The organization launched National Day of Listening in 2008 in what some view as an alternative to Black Friday, though organizers don’t necessarily see it that way.

“It’s fine if people want to go shopping, too. But make time to really uncover some stories that you may not have heard yet or even just to document [meaningful] stories,” says StoryCorps spokesperson Jeremy Helton, who has used the occasion to say to his mother,  I want you to tell me the stories you’ve always told me so I can record them—and have your voice.

Because Thanksgiving weekend is a time people gather in homes and around tables as families and neighbors, the annual day seemed fitting. “We thought that while people are together,” Helton tells SUCCESS, “wouldn’t it be great if they also had a reason to talk with one another and share stories?”

And you can post your recordings on StoryCorps’ DIY Wall of Listening, a novel project for StoryCorps, at any time year-round. Or just listen. More than 500 do-it-yourself recordings have been posted since the feature began in 2012.

If you’ve ever heard a professionally edited StoryCorps piece on National Public Radio or its podcasts, you probably know that the oral history organization invites average people to step into its traveling story booth or permanent studios to tell a personal story—and more than 90,000 people have done so in 54 languages. But the story booth misses a lot of the country, so the DIY idea was born. “I think that is really an exciting step for us, to empower people to take the tools that we provide them and do their own recordings,” Helton says.

And so it happened that Doug Orcutt used the opportunity to ask his mom, Jane, several questions, including when she knew she would marry his dad.

“Oh, gosh, I was very smitten in high school,” she began. “I think [it happened] when I was a senior and realized that I was going to be going off to college and he was, too, but somewhere else—that was kind of traumatic—I was sure I’d be back again, though.”

Ronald Clendenin Jr.  asked his wife of 35 years, Aletta, many questions in a frank, nearly 10-minute recording, including, What is your earliest memory of me?  “You ran around the neighborhood with a boy down the street. His mom told us, ‘You don’t want to know him. He’s nothing but trouble. He’s getting my son into trouble all the time.’ ” (Ronald made sure to put the record straight: “But in reality, he was really getting me into trouble.”)

Did Aletta have any regrets? her husband asked. “I regret that I never finished school and got a high school diploma. Never got my driver’s license. If I’d got that, then I could’ve gotten a job and helped provide for our kids.” Her husband touchingly reassured, “I think you did a wonderful job. Our kids are grown. They’re doing relatively well. I think you did a fine job and love you for it.” “And I love you too,” she replied.

Tamera Henry learned more about her father, Eric, who grew up as the youngest child in a family of eight kids, with his dad as the sole breadwinner and his mom as a homemaker. His most vivid memory as a child was from when he was about 8. The youngest kids had just drawn up their Christmas wish lists.

“As it got close to approaching closer to Christmas, my dad took a shotgun outside and shot it in the air and came back in the house with tears in his eyes. And we all went to him and said, ‘What’s wrong, Father?’ ” He answered, “I don’t know how I’m going to break this story to you guys…. Santa Claus just committed suicide, and he won’t be coming here tonight.”

“We all cried,” Eric said. “As we got older, we understood. Because he was the breadwinner.”

These and other touching stories are posted on the Wall of Listening. So pull out your smartphone or recorder and get ready. What story does your loved one have to tell? 

Do your parents hold the secret to your success? They could if you look (and listen) a little closer…