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

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.

David VonDerLinn and Annie Hudson with their daughter Ava at home in Burbank, Calif.
/ Bethany Froelich/Courtesy of Annie Hudson and David VonDerLinn
Bethany Froelich/Courtesy of Annie Hudson and David VonDerLinn
David VonDerLinn and Annie Hudson with their daughter Ava at home in Burbank, Calif.

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
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
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
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. [...]

David, a digital designer and artist, is working on this painting of Ava inspired by one of the experiences described in his emails to her.
/ Courtesy of David VonDerLinn
Courtesy of David VonDerLinn
David, a digital designer and artist, is working on this painting of Ava inspired by one of the experiences described in his emails to her.

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 — negotiation is futile.

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."

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Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.