Sunday, January 4, 2009


My mom just opened up a Gmail account that she rarely uses. Actually, rarely is an understatement. She set it up, but really hasn't opened it up since then. So, it has sat idle for a couple of years. But fed up with hotmail spam, she finally decided to switch to the account. 

When she logged in, she found 177 emails from my grandfather, her father, who died 14 months ago. 

Email provides us with some odd timing situations ... and they can be especially odd when the sender has passed on. Susan Barnes writes about the nature of time as it relates to email: "Email messages are sent and received in asynchronous time." Barnes continues, "Cybertime blurs the distinctions between past, present, and future because when reading email we have the sense of simultaneously conversing with the author in cyberspace." 

The author sends the email in the present, and it sits in our inbox for a given amount of time ... could be seconds, could be years. However, whenever it is that we get around to reading it, we perceive that moment to be the present for the email. 

In cases where the author has since passed on in real-time, the reader is left in a strange, emotional limbo in which the author still exists in cybertime. 

Most of my grandfather's emails were silly forwards about safety at the gas pump, not forgetting 9-11, etc., so it probably wasn't as jarring as receiving 177 new, personally crafted emails ... but still, it had to be a disquieting experience for my mother. 


Michael said...

I don't really have much to add to this, other than to say that it's very interesting.

I had a somewhat similar experience when my dad died. He had left me a voicemail that I hadn't listened to before he died. Listening to it afterwards was very strange and difficult.

dethmama said...

Wow... I'm trying to imagine how it felt to find all those emails after such a long time. Thinking about my own dead father, I'm sure the experience would be very unnerving.

risaden said...

There is also the common but uncanny experience of listening to the message on the phone of someone who has died. I have found myself calling over and over to hear the voice of someone I loved one more time, before the phone is disconnected and the voice seemingly lost forever, the body already gone.

Jessica Knapp said...

Michael—that must have been very strange, and sad.

risaden—yes, that's a good point. I have done that, only with a voicemail I had saved on my phone. And you know it won't help to listen to it, but somehow, you can't let it go.

Actually with this same grandfather (my mom's dad), my grandmother held on to the answering machine message that had his voice on it for months. She just wasn't ready to let it go. But everyone else in the family was so ready for it to be gone. But it was her husband, and she wasn't ready to let go of that last piece of his physical form.

klynn said...

i still have the answering machine message from my husband who died eleven years ago. i have let him go, but it's nice for my daughter to hear his voice again.

Jessica Knapp said...

Klynn, thanks for sharing. That's yet another angle I hadn't thought of before.