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A little time and a recorder can provide a lifetime of memories

My mother could hold court at a moment’s notice. She was a natural Irish storyteller whose version of events was always entertaining and quite often accurate.

My father was always the last one in the room to tell a story, and not just because mom did most of the talking. He was a good listener who was comfortable with silence. He preferred it, actually. When he told a story, his deep, cigarette-scarred baritone was clear and certain.

They’re gone now, most of their stories reduced to the sketchy recollections of family members and old friends. Cousin Mary Burke has taken it upon herself to collect anecdotes from the various branches of the family, but it’s a big task that gets harder with each passing year as memories fade like weathered photographs.

I think of my folks often during the holiday season. If I strain I can almost hear the murmur of their conversation in the next room.

This time of year I am reminded, once again, that I should have taken more time to remember their stories, either by reducing them to journalism or, better yet, recording them in a family oral history.

Dave Isay surely knows that feeling. He’s the founder and president of StoryCorps, the independent nonprofit company that seeks "to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening." It touts itself as "the most ambitious oral history project ever undertaken," and it’s easy to see why.

Not only has StoryCorps created one of the nation’s largest recorded oral history archives, but it also is the driving force behind Friday’s second annual National Day of Listening. So far, more than 50,000 Americans have participated.

Here’s how it works.

"The National Day of Listening is one day a year when StoryCorps asks all Americans to set aside one hour to interview a friend, loved one, or member of their community," Isay writes. "The process is simple — pick someone whose life you’d like to honor or learn more about, find a quiet interview location, and use your iPhone, computer, video camera or any other taping device to record your conversation."

If you’re like me, you’ll want to bring your child along to ensure the iPhone, computer, or video camera is recording properly and not turning the National Day of Listening into the National Sound of Silence.

For MacArthur Fellow Isay, Friday holds the potential to remind us of our common humanity at a time the nation is roiled in recession.

"The National Day of Listening offers everyone the chance to discover what wonderful and unexpected stories can emerge from the simple request, ‘Tell me about your life,’ " he observes. (For a do-it-yourself instruction guide, go online at nationalday oflistening.org.)

In Las Vegas, which buries its history like pirate treasure, locals have seized the fleeting opportunity to capture the community’s character before it slips away. Local Barbara Tabach heard the call and took it upon herself to record, photograph, and document the stories of dozens of Frontier Hotel employees just prior to the scattering of the work force and the demolition of the venerable Strip casino. Former Southern Nevada resident and genuine Las Vegas lover Lynn Zook went even further, creating the oral history series "As We Knew It: The Story of Classic Las Vegas."

But it’s important to remember you don’t have to be a professional oral historian to participate. You only need to take the time and a recorder. As an anecdote, Isay provides the story of Bree Candiloro, who interviewed her mother and father.

"I learned things about them I never knew," she said. "Even though we were close already, I feel closer to them now than ever before."

Candiloro should consider herself most fortunate.

What I wouldn’t give to hear my parents’ voices and stories again.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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