DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is that time of year when many parents take on a new identity as empty nesters. MORNING EDITION producer Cindy Carpien just sent her last child off to college. It's been a bittersweet time for Cindy. And she's finding comfort and new meaning in old phone messages she saved from her two daughters.
JESSIE: Hi, mom, it's me, Jessie.
CINDY CARPIEN, BYLINE: 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.
MICHAELA: Hi, mom.
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CARPIEN: 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 began to leave me messages.
JESSIE: Hi, Mom, I love you, but I'm sure you won't get into the office. I like you. Call me back.
CARPIEN: I couldn't bear to delete the messages until I head that familiar alert: 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.
JESSIE: I love you, mommy. And I'm really silly...
CARPIEN: I kept them, 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 adorable prompts like: sing us the Barney theme song, or play that ukulele we bought that you loved to strum once. The phone messages were unprompted. And without guidelines, my daughters determined the content.
JESSIE: Hi, mommy. It's me, Jessie. We just came back from the park, and a friend of mine...
CARPIEN: At home, if I asked how was your day, I was lucky to get: It was good. Left to their devices, I was rich with fill-in material.
JESSIE: Just called to say goodnight, mama. We had fun at the picnic and we did face painting. That was fun, mommy. Hey, Michaela, you want to talk to mommy, a message?
MICHAELA: Hi, mommy.
CARPIEN: I can even hear their relationship as sisters evolving. My older daughter was the patient explainer, over and over, without success, the mystery of the answering machine.
JESSIE: Michaela, it's a message machine. So you have to talk like mommy's not on the phone, OK. And just leave her a message, OK.
MICHAELA: Hi, mommy. Hi. Hi. Hi.
CARPIEN: The message ritual lasted about a year until I made the decision to spend more time with my children. This was the last message I received.
JESSIE: Hi, mom. It's me, Jessie. We know that we love you very, very much. And we know that you're going to stay home with us. And we love that you're going to stay home with us. Bye.
CARPIEN: 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.
MICHAELA: Hi, mom and dad. It's Michaela. I've just gotten all settled in. And I'm finally feeling like it's home. I love you guys. Give me a call back when you get this. Bye.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: End of message.
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GREENE: Cindy Carpien is a producer for MORNING EDITION. And if there are other empty nesters listening out there, what memories bring you comfort or what memories will you cherish when your nest is empty? Please share your stories with us at our website, npr.org.
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GREENE: This is NPR News.