Preserving Memories: In Emails To A Toddler, A Window Into Her Parents' Love

Apr 10, 2017
Originally published on April 10, 2017 4:14 pm

This story starts with a lost email.

Annie Hudson had spent weeks crafting the text. She was documenting tiny elements of a memory — events so ordinary that they would certainly be forgotten, yet so treasured that she wanted to keep hold.

She wanted the email to be perfect. Kept tinkering, revising. It lived in the "Drafts" folder on her iPhone.

Then, came a notice: "Software Update." Annie followed the prompts. Her phone got up-to-date fixes. The draft of the email disappeared.

OK, it's only an email. But not just any email. Annie went to the Apple store, hoping for a recovery. The Genius Bar couldn't help. And then, on her podcast app, she heard an essay about the foibles of trusting the magic of technology — and a call for listeners to share "IT-related emotional breakdowns" for a chance of advice.

Annie sent hers the next day: "I know it's probably a long-shot, but I have to try."

"This is your dad ... emailing you"

Which takes us to the real start of this story: the birth of Ava VonDerLinn.

Home with newborn Ava, Annie obsessed over preserving memories. She was going to remember all the little moments, take all the pictures, record all the milestones. "I was so afraid I was going to forget," she says. There was going to be a baby book — obviously.

"You have no idea how many books I got from Amazon, looked at them and sent them back," Annie says. They were formulaic and...not quite right. Which was also not entirely tangible: Is the book the cutest? The most colorful? The one with the most pertinent questions? "I was driving my husband, my sister and my friends crazy," Annie says. They told her: "Just pick a book and start writing in it!"

She did. On the pages, her handwriting shrunk and crammed toward the bottom. Overwhelmed and anxious, Annie one day called her sister: How did she handle it all with her son?

"You know," Annie's sister said, "I write him emails." She'd read about it on some parenting blog — a 21st-century version of the "Book of Days" their own mother had done for them.

And that's how little Ava got her first email. It came from Annie's husband, David VonDerLinn.


TO: Ava
FROM: Dad
SUBJECT: Your very first email ever!

Hi Ava Bean!

This is your dad (who is still getting use to that title) emailing you on Feb. 11th, 2015 at 8:49 in the AM, from his studio office. I just added you to my address book (that was sort of a powerful feeling by the way). Here is your profile picture! [...]


From there, the emails poured in. A video of Ava learning to stand. Later, to walk. A quick photo from a trip to the zoo. A story of a special pillow-placement preference (at her feet), a recurring song request ("Heigh Ho" from Snow White). All digitally marking the unforgiving passage of time — and with it, the phenomenal, relentless transformation unique to tiny humans.


TO: Ava
FROM: Mom
SUBJECT: Paco hosies

[...] Sometimes the days just blur together and it's easy to forget that you will not always be this age, this size.

I was reminded of this earlier today and it stopped me in my tracks and made me cry. [...] You started singing, "Ring around the Rosies." You love this tune and have been singing it for awhile now but you usually start it out with your own special rendition: "Paco hosies" and then, "ashes, ashes, we all fall down." [...] You have always started the song out that way. Until today. You started out correctly: "ring around the rosies." It kinda broke my heart. Maybe you'll still sometimes say "Paco hosies," but I fear I've heard it for the last time. [...]


The emails have afforded Annie and David a reprieve from lost-memory angst. They're easily done in the dark, from any device; one parent can fire off a note while the other is watching the kid. Every message gets backed up to the cloud, and duplicates get sent to a secondary inbox.

David has set a Monday reminder, but they don't sweat the frequency too much. "I mean, if we did it every (week), it would be 52 emails a year," he says, adding under his breath: "That would be crazy."

That lost iPhone draft, Annie never did recover. The email had recounted Ava's ever-changing bedtime routine, her joy in playing with mom's hair. Annie says she's given it another take.

The palest ink

The idea, of course, is for Ava to inherit a vault of recollections, a window into this time in her family's life — "because she probably won't remember," says Annie. She has read that children's memory usually only starts after three.

But are these emails for Ava, or for her mother and father?

Annie and David say they're for their daughter to know, for them to hold on. "When you have kids, and when life is just going by faster and faster, you just forget things so easily," says David. "And you think you're not going to forget," adds Annie, "but you do." A Chinese proverb has stuck with her: The palest ink is better than the best memory.


TO: Ava
FROM: Dad
SUBJECT: My vision of you this morning

[...] I saw you running back and forth on the play equipment and you looked so happy and free. I didn't want to interrupt you so I decided I would go ahead and leave without disturbing you. I went through the gate then turned around and there you were, standing at the other side of the playground looking back at me. The sun was shining behind you lighting up your rainbow dress and wild blonde hair. You looked like a colorful angel. You stared at me for a moment, I think wondering if you should run to me for a goodbye hug, and I wondered that too. Then you turned and ran back to play, and I suddenly realized that you have grown just a little bit. You are a little more independent, a little more brave, a little more powerful. [...]


As we talk on the phone, Ava quietly watches Frozen in the next room. She's supposed to be napping, but she's almost three — you can imagine how that negotiation goes.

Annie and David have different ideas for when they would share the email vault with their daughter. David suggests they could use them as leverage, if Ava becomes a rebellious teen. ("I don't know if she'll appreciate," says Annie, laughing.) Or, maybe, they'll wait for her quarter-life crisis, or a time when she's old enough to relate. Or maybe — in the cruelest act of sentimental parents everywhere — they'll deliver them on her wedding day, if she has one.

"I have an idea," David stage-whispers to Annie conspiratorially. "We'll download them to an ancient hard drive and we'll put them up in the attic. And they'll get all dusty, and some day when she's an old lady, she'll go up there and find them — we'll be long gone."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A few weeks back, we invited our listeners to tell us about IT-related emotional breakdowns. We asked NPR's Alina Selyukh to read all the messages, and one of them stuck with her. It came from a mother distraught by a loss of an email draft to her toddler. That got Alina interested in this process of preserving childhood, and she called the mom to learn more.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: For me, the story started with a lost email, but what really got me was the reason behind it. Annie Hudson was documenting tiny elements of a memory, events so ordinary they would definitely be forgotten yet so treasured, she wanted to hold on, which takes us to the real start of the story.

AVA: Marshmallow's scary.

SELYUKH: The birth of Ava, Annie's daughter with husband David VonDerLinn.

AVA: You're not scary.

DAVID VONDERLINN: When you have kids and when life is just going by faster and faster, you just forget things so easily, and...

ANNIE HUDSON: And you think you're not going to forget, but you do.

SELYUKH: When Ava was born, Annie became obsessed with preserving memories. She ordered baby books from Amazon - one, then another, sent them back. They didn't seem right.

HUDSON: I was driving my husband and my sister and my friends crazy. They were just like, just pick a book, and start writing in it.

SELYUKH: In the end, she did. Its pages started to fill up with handwriting, cramming toward the bottom. She didn't want to document milestones. She wanted to record thoughts, stories. Anxious, Annie called her sister to ask how she handled all this with her son.

HUDSON: And she said, well, you know, I write him emails.

SELYUKH: And that's how little Ava got her very first email.

VONDERLINN: (Reading) Hi, Ava Bean. This is your dad, who is still getting a little used to that title, emailing you on February 11, 2015 at 8:49 in the morning from his office.

SELYUKH: From there, the emails poured in - a video of Eva learning to stand, later to walk, a quick photo from the zoo, a story of Ava requesting a pillow be placed at her feet for sleep, all digital markers of the passage of time and with it a phenomenal, relentless transformation of a tiny human.

HUDSON: (Reading) Sometimes the days just blur together, and it's easy to forget that you will not always be this age and this size. I was reminded of this earlier today, and it stopped me in my tracks and made me cry. And you started singing "Ring Around The Rosies."

You love this tune and have been singing it for a while now, but you usually start it out with your own special rendition - (singing) paco hosies (ph) and then (singing) ashes, ashes we all fall down. But because you have always started the song out this way until today - you started out correctly - (singing) ring around the rosies - it kind of broke my heart. Maybe you'll still sometimes say paco hosies, but I fear I've heard it for the last time.

VONDERLINN: (Reading) I saw you running back and forth on the play equipment, and you looked so happy and free. I didn't want to interrupt you, so I decided I would go ahead and leave without disturbing you. I went through the gate and turned around, and there you were, standing at the other side of the playground, looking back at me. The sun was shining behind you and lining up your rainbow dress and wild, blond hair. You looked like a colorful angel.

You stared at me for a moment, I think wondering if you should run to me for a goodbye hug. And I wondered that, too. Then you turned and ran back to play, and I suddenly realized that you've grown just a little bit. You're a little bit more independent, a little more brave, a little more powerful. My heart aches at the idea of you growing up, but I know that this is the way of the world.

AVA: I don't want to take a nap.

SELYUKH: Ava is now almost 3. Annie and David don't really know how or when they'll tell her about the emails. For now, Ava just knows she has a surprise, and it's in the ether, a word she learned from "Curious George."

VONDERLINN: You know what we're talking about?

HUDSON: Can you say hi to Alina?

AVA: Hi, Alina.

VONDERLINN: Say NPR is the best.

AVA: PPR (ph) is the best.

(LAUGHTER)

SELYUKH: From PPR News in Washington, I'm Alina Selyukh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINOTAUR SHOCK SONG, "MY BURR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.