Hope, Saved on a Laptop
By DAN BARRY
Published: May 17, 2006
In a small North Dakota town, a mother recently opened the laptop computer
of her daughter, who died on 9/11. It had been returned to her family
in North Dakota, along with the other belongings she left behind in that
great city 1,750 miles to the east. She was 30, lively, working near the
very top of the World Trade Center, and you already know.
In the small town of Stanley, halfway between Minot and Williston, a
fog thick enough to blur time's passing enveloped the Nelson home. Amid
the many tributes to Ann, amid the grieving and the absence, it became
hard to remember just when and how the laptop wound up in the basement
of the one-story bank that the family owned.
There the laptop sat, for years, tucked away from sight in a black case.
It was a Dell Inspiron 8000, bought shortly before Ann called home that
day in early 2001 to say she had gotten a job as a bond trader at Cantor
Fitzgerald in New York! Soon she was living near the corner of Thompson
and Spring, and working in an office 104 stories in the air.
Ann's parents, Jenette and Gary Nelson, say the laptop remained unopened
because they are not computer savvy. But it was more than that, Mrs. Nelson
admits. "To tell you the truth, it was just too painful."
Three summers ago, during an art class Mrs. Nelson was teaching in that
basement, a couple of students showed her how to use the computer. After
the class, she says, "I just left it there."
Who knows why never becomes someday, and someday becomes today. One
day last fall "when I got to feeling stronger," she says Mrs.
Nelson finally opened her daughter's computer. She pushed its power button
and started by looking at the photographs stored in its memory.
Soon Mrs. Nelson was learning how to play the computer's games, including
solitaire and hearts. These distractions both relaxed her and reminded
her of the games she used to play with Ann. Somehow, this little black
machine made Ann seem present, there beside her.
Getting lost in the computer became part of Mrs. Nelson's after-work ritual,
though she never bothered to open a file that said "Top 100";
probably some music, she figured. Then, two months ago and who knows why,
What she found was a catalog of goals, humanly incomplete: a list that
reflected a young woman's commitment to the serious, to the frivolous,
to all of life. That night, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson sat down with the list,
and were with their daughter again.
1. Be healthy/ healthful.
2. Be a good friend.
3. Keep secrets.
4. Keep in touch with people I love and that love me.
5. Make a quilt.
Mrs. Nelson used to sew all the time, until it simply became too hard
to guide a needle properly with a joyous little girl frolicking in her
lap. Then, when Ann grew older, mother and daughter decided to sew a tablecloth.
"I don't think we ever finished," Mrs. Nelson says, laughing.
"She had to be doing 100 things at a time, and consequently some
of them didn't get finished."
As for this goal of making a quilt, she adds, "I'm sure that I
would probably have been deeply involved in this process."
7. Buy a home in North Dakota.
8. Get a graduate degree.
9. Learn a foreign language.
11. Never be ashamed of who I am.
"Ann was in many environments where being a girl from North Dakota
may not have been the most sophisticated label to wear," Mrs. Nelson
says, recalling that her daughter had traveled to China and to Peru, and
had worked in the high-powered environments of Chicago and New York.
Even so, Ann always conveyed pride in who she was, who her parents were
and where they came from though never in a boastful way. "It's an
important point about her personality," her mother says.
12. Be a person to be proud of.
13. Always keep improving.
14. Read every day.
15. Be informed.
16. Knit a sweater.
17. Scuba-dive in the Barrier Reef.
18. Volunteer for a charity.
19. Learn to cook.
By her late 20's, Ann had actually become a fairly decent cook. Still,
her mother laughs in recalling late-night calls, like the one that began:
"Mom, what's drawn butter?"
20. Learn about art.
21. Get my C.F.A.
22. Grand Canyon.
23. Helicopter-ski with my dad.
Then Ann Nelson's list repeats a number.
23. Spend more time with my family.
24. Remember birthdays!!!!
Birthdays loomed large in Ann's life. She would celebrate her birthday
not for a day, but for a week in part because her father's birthday came
the very next day, in part because she was proud to have been born on
Norwegian Independence Day which is May 17, today.
"Ann would have been 35," says Mr. Nelson, who turns 65 tomorrow.
25. Appreciate money, but don't worship it.
26. Learn how to use a computer.
27. Visit the New York Public Library.
29. Learn to write.
30. Walk exercise but also see the world firsthand.
31. Learn about other cultures.
32. Be a good listener.
33. Take time for friends.
35. Drink water.
36. Learn about wine.
Ann was supposed to attend a wine class the evening of Sept. 11, in
keeping with Nos. 13, 19, 31, 36 the whole list, really.
After 36, there is a 37, but it is blank.
Mr. Nelson reads the list as an inventory of his daughter's values.
"You don't see any Corvettes in the garage or any of those material
things you might expect from someone that age," he says. "She
recognized that you appreciate a few things and kind of live your life
Mrs. Nelson interprets the list as another way in which Ann seems to
communicate with her when she is most in need. So, just about every day
in a small North Dakota town, halfway between Minot and Williston, the
screen of a laptop computer goes from darkness to light.