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This time of year, some parents are becoming empty nesters. Morning Edition producer Cindy Carpien just sent her youngest child off to college. It's bittersweet, but she's finding comfort and new meaning in old phone messages she saved from her two daughters.
It's not surprising that a radio producer would keep audio "snapshots" of her children. But it wasn't something I set out to do.
Seventeen years ago, while I worked late on Friday nights as senior producer of Weekend Edition Saturday, my 1 1/2- and 4-year-old daughters started leaving me phone messages. At first, they were short, sweet spatterings, mostly from my older one, such as: "Mom, I love you. Call me back." My youngest tried various versions of "hello."
I couldn't bear to delete the messages. But eventually I had to, when I heard the familiar "Your mailbox is full." My solution was to dart off to a studio and record them onto that now ancient form of technology, reel-to-reel audio tape.
Those tapes began to pile up on a shelf in my office. Truthfully, I didn't know what I would do with them.
I kept the tapes (I think) simply because I loved hearing their voices. But it's taken me a long time to realize that the messages were different from the box of videos we have somewhere. I'm pretty sure those are full of prompts from us to sing the Barney theme song or to play the ukulele we bought that they loved to strum ... once.
Instead, the phone messages were unprompted. And without guidelines, my daughters determined the content.
My older daughter started every message the same way, by identifying herself: "Hi, Mommy, it's me Jessie." As the messages became more regular, an effortless flow of information followed:
"We just came back from the park ... "
"We had a picnic and we had face painting ... "
At home if I asked, "How was your day?" I was lucky to get "It was good." Left to their own devices, I was rich with fill-in material.
The messages provided me a window into the first time my youngest went pee-pee in the potty, the time she was afraid of the doggy at the park, when the lights went out after a storm. And sometimes I'd get a song.
I could even hear their relationship as sisters evolving. Big sister was the patient explainer, over and over, without success, of the mystery of the answering machine:
"Now this is an answering machine, OK? You have to talk like Mommy's not on the phone and just leave her a message, OK?" With great exuberance, my younger daughter would grab the phone, say "hi" numerous times, and then hang up.
The message ritual lasted about a year, until I made a pivotal decision to spend more time with my children, which meant a move away from my beloved NPR. In my haste to save things as I packed up my desk, I pieced much of the audio (with our standard razor blades and splicing tape) onto one reel. Still, that wasn't very practical, so I dubbed it all onto a cassette. A number of years later, in another move, I turned it into a CD. As technology advanced, so did the messages.
Occasionally my daughters would listen to parts of the messages for laughs — mostly to hear how they sounded during preschool days. We especially loved the last message, left by my older daughter:
"Hi, Mommy, it's me, Jessie. We know that we love you very, very much, and we know that you're gonna stay home with us, and we love that you're gonna stay home with us. Bye." Click.
Fast forward to now — and it's hard to summon up those early years when their world only centered around our home. These messages help me remember and appreciate how our children eventually grow up and figure some things out all on their own, like how an answering machine works.
As for other empty nesters out there: What memories of your kids bring you comfort? Or, if your nest is not empty, what memories will you cherish when it is? Share with us in the comments below.