'Kiss Everybody': Voice Mails Live On After Parents Are Gone

'Kiss Everybody': Voice Mails Live On After Parents Are Gone

3:01pm May 26, 2015
Charles Ornstein with his parents at his Bar Mitzvah. Through their voice messages, saved on his phone, Ornstein has a trove of verbal memories.
Charles Ornstein with his parents at his Bar Mitzvah. Through their voice messages, saved on his phone, Ornstein has a trove of verbal memories.
Courtesy of Charles Ornstein
Charles Ornstein with his parents at his Bar Mitzvah. Through their voice messages, saved on his phone, Ornstein has a trove of verbal memories.

Charles Ornstein with his parents at his Bar Mitzvah. Through their voice messages, saved on his phone, Ornstein has a trove of verbal memories.

Courtesy of Charles Ornstein

The voice mail message was like so many others from my mom over the years.

"Hi, it's mom," she began, then chatted on, full Jewish mom in her distinctive gravelly timbre. "There's a storm coming your way ... Please drive very carefully ... Love you. Bye."

It's the type of message I normally didn't pay much attention to — if I listened to it at all. But three weeks after she uttered those words my mom died at a hospital outside Detroit. I unearthed this message and others from her while plumbing my iPhone's cache of deleted messages, amazed and grateful by this unexpected ability to preserve that voice.

I have many treasured memories of my mom, who died two years ago this month. I cherish her parents' naturalization certificates upon becoming U.S. citizens. I have serving platters, wine glasses, and photos of her as a girl and with my children. I, of course, have videos of her at my Bar Mitzvah and wedding. But somehow, oddly, the voice mails — those unscripted moments of everyday life — are the ones I turn to most often.

I hear that Jewish mother who was ever protective and worried, even as I raised a family of my own hundreds of miles away. The mom eager to share a juicy story ("Just watching the news and there was another crazy New Jersey guy ... " she said in one message). The mom who called every few hours, brimming with excitement as my family and I drove 10 hours from New Jersey to visit her and my dad. The mom increasingly frail as her Parkinson's disease advanced. ("Charlie, I have a favor to ask of you ... I'll talk to you later. Love you. Kiss everybody.")

I had stumbled upon the messages almost by accident. While going through voice messages of condolence from friends, I came upon a single, mundane call from my mom. I then made the fortuitous discovery that my smart phone was really smart — it required a second delete to send the messages into the ether. I had a trove of verbal memories.

It struck me that our phones have become the new memory books. Unlike photos that capture how we looked in second grade or remind us of our 21st birthday, voice mails — perhaps because they are divorced from the visual — capture the essence of us at different moments in time. My 5-year-old son's impishness as he asks for a call back. My eight-year-old's obsession with our fantasy sports teams. My mom's voice growing weaker over time.

Home answering machines are usually erased, but our phones allow us to carry memories with us, perhaps without realizing it.

When I upgraded my iPhone recently, I saved the messages to a digital voice recorder, not wanting to ever lose them.

A day before my mom's heart unexpectedly stopped, sending her into the coma that she never recovered from, she called my dad's cell phone from the hospital emergency room where she had gone with a bad cold. It was before dawn. "Hi. I love you. It's 5:30. I haven't slept but I love you. Take care of yourself please. Bye."

It's haunting to listen to those words. I wonder if she knew her own end was near.

Sadly, I would go through a similar ritual when my dad died suddenly, four months after my mom.

"Hi everybody. Shabbat Shalom. It's Papa O, calling from Michigan. Okey doke, bye now," said my dad's soft, gentle voice still sending us love in one message we had inexplicably not erased on our home machine.

When I listen to my dad's messages on my phone, I hear the gentle caring man who always asked about how others were doing, irrespective of his own health problems ("I don't know what time you were going home. Have a safe trip and give me a call when you're back in New Jersey.") I hear the dad who always made us roll our eyes and good-naturedly chuckle with his insistence on noting the precise instant of his call — "1:33 and a half" — despite the time stamp on the message and Caller ID.

Like the messages left by my mom, those left by my dad chronicle the slow march to his own death, which put an abrupt stop to our daily calls (often in the heat of my workday when I don't have much time for chatting) and the messages I now treasure. In his final weeks, complications of diabetes and a fall led to the amputation of one toe, and then all of the toes on one foot.

"You know I'm minus a toe but I'm more worried about the foot," he said in one message. "Anyway, I'm OK with it. Alright, bye now."

Eight days before he died, he left me what would be his last message: "Everything seems to be going fine," he said at the end. "Bye now."

Until my parents' death, I had overlooked the power of voice mail or answering machine messages. To be honest, I didn't promptly listen to messages and have largely moved to text messages and quick emails if I can't reach someone live.

In fact, I wouldn't be too surprised if voice mails disappear altogether before too long. Coca-Cola announced in December that it was getting rid of the voice mail system in its Atlanta headquarters "to simplify the way we work and increase productivity." Instead, callers are told to try again later or try "an alternative method."

That sounds like a reasonable business decision. But from a personal perspective, I can tell you my parents' emails and texts don't carry the same emotional resonance as hearing their voices.

My parents endure in many forms. But most of those, I don't carry with me in my pocket. The voice mails, I do.

More than once, I've pulled over while driving alone, whipped out my phone and played the messages one after another. I marvel how the things I cherish most about my parents aren't those that I would have ever imagined.

Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative reporting news organization in New York. An earlier story about his mother's death can be found on NPR's Shots blog.

Copyright 2015 ProPublica. To see more, visit .



Speaking of voices and tech...


HARRIET ORNSTEIN: Hi, it's Mom. It's Saturday.

CORNISH: That's Harriet Ornstein.


ALEXANDER ORNSTEIN: Hi, Charlie, it's Dad.

CORNISH: And that's Alexander Ornstein. These are very ordinary voice mails they left for their son, Charlie. Charlie Ornstein lives with his wife and kids in New Jersey. Until 2013, his parents lived in Michigan, hundreds of miles away. In their later years, as Harriet and Alexander's health failed, Charlie struggled to be there for his whole family. The technology he relied on - daily phone calls and voice mails. He still listens back to them today.

CHARLES ORNSTEIN: Listening to the voice of my parents helps capture their essence and brings them alive to me. You know, a voice is something that could escape to history, but the fact that I have them, you know, on the phone sort of ensures that it never will.


H. ORNSTEIN: Hi, it's Mom. There's a storm coming your way and call me again on my cell and leave me a number about when you're coming. And please drive very carefully. Love you - bye.


C. ORNSTEIN: So these messages so sort of capture the essence of my mom 'cause she was a quintessential Jewish mother, constantly worried about things that were outside of her control. And the weather was definitely paramount among them.


H. ORNSTEIN: Hi, it is very cold here. It snowed, and there will be some icing on the roads, but that's all I know. See you soon - bye.


C. ORNSTEIN: So as I listen to these messages, one thing that sort of hits home to me is the fact that sort of I'm on this march that has a finite end. And so I see December 21 and I know my mom died on January 18, and so there's a limit as to the number of voice mails that I'm going to hear from her. So you're sort of listening to this march that she doesn't know is happening and I don't know is happening, but it's eerie to listen and know that.


A. ORNSTEIN: Hi, Charlie, it's Dad. It's five to 8; just trying to return your call - bye.

C. ORNSTEIN: Barely any messages went by without my dad making a reference to the time. I don't know that my dad knew that the phone told you the exact time, but it did. So it was good to see it twice - hear it and see it. On January 12, my mom was in the hospital because she had this chest cold that she couldn't kick. This is sort of the last time we get to hear her voice, and the nice thing about it is that is in a loving way.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Your message from Saturday, January 12 at 5:26 a.m.

H. ORNSTEIN: Hi, I love you. It's 5:30 a.m. It's Mom. I love you. Take care of yourself please.

C. ORNSTEIN: That one sends, you know, chills through my spine because as one of the last memories of my mom, the fact that she's encouraging my dad to take care of himself was so sort of quintessentially the way that she was. You know, as sort of this enduring memory of her concern for him - that was just really special.


A. ORNSTEIN: Hi, it's Dad. It's 6:15 on Thursday. Bye.

C. ORNSTEIN: I was talking to my dad every day, and oftentimes my wife was talking to him separately and the kids were talking to him separately. This was a rough time. My mom had just passed away.


A. ORNSTEIN: Hi, it's Dad. It's 3:30 on Saturday. Hi, this is Dad, it's 10:50 on Sunday. Bye.

C. ORNSTEIN: And his health problems had not gone away. In fact, he had fallen in the bathroom and cut his foot. That wound that he sustained, really in the weeks after my mom passed away, ended up not healing well and that became a problem, you know, a couple months down the line for then. Here's one from March 17. I was returning from a conference that day in Boston.


A. ORNSTEIN: Hi, Charlie, it's Dad. It's 1 o'clock on Sunday. I didn't know what time you were going home. Have a safe trip and give me a call when you're back in New Jersey. Bye now.

C. ORNSTEIN: When I returned from this conference, we found out that my wife was pregnant with our third son, and we had planned to wait a while before telling them. But my dad had to go to the hospital again, and we were concerned that if something happened to him we wanted to make sure that he knew that we would be naming the baby for my mom. I did save one additional message that he left on my home message machine.


A. ORNSTEIN: Hi, everybody. Shabbat shalom.

C. ORNSTEIN: So I love that my dad said Shabbat shalom because religion and raising our kids in the Jewish tradition is something that was really important to both of my parents. And so to have a message where he was wishing everybody a peaceful and happy Sabbath was really nice to hear.


A. ORNSTEIN: It's Papa O, calling from Michigan. Bye now.

C. ORNSTEIN: I never would have thought that the things that mattered most to me after my parents were gone would be the things that I didn't think about. But this device in my pocket has empowered me to be able to relive my parents' voice and their spirits and their essence in a way that nothing else that they've left for me has done.

CORNISH: Charles Ornstein - he's a senior reporter for ProPublica. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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