When Abby Van Metre turned 18, she wanted an iPhone. Instead, she got ... a box?
She remembers plopping down on the living room floor of her Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home a few days after her birthday, next to her dog, and staring at the aged brown container. It had been her great-great-aunt's jewelry box. It was over 100 years old and had been passed down to Abby's grandma and, now, to Abby.
But she didn't know what was inside.
Her parents explained that the box was a time capsule filled with letters and keepsakes from Abby's 1st birthday. It had never been opened.
Instead of gifts, everyone in her family had written young Abby a card or a letter. They also stuffed the box with some newspapers from 1999 and other keepsakes. Then, her parents tucked it away for 17 years. Abby never even knew it existed.
As she started to go through the time capsule's contents, including letters from close relatives who had since passed away, Abby was overcome with emotion.
"I started crying. It was happiness. It wasn't sadness at all," she said. "It was sheer happiness that I got one more conversation with loved ones, one more 'I love you,' one more piece of advice."
One letter, from her uncle who was killed in a car accident three years ago, hit Abby particularly hard.
"It was just a very visceral thing for me, and the moment I started reading it, I couldn't handle it. It was like I was talking to him," she said.
Other letters were lighthearted glimpses into the past.
Abby said one of her cousins — whom she describes as a "big burly Marine" — was 7 when he wrote her a letter for the time capsule.
"In his letter, he attached his favorite Pokemon card, and in his letter he says, 'When you open this, can I please have that back?'"
Abby's mom filmed the whole thing and posted it to Facebook, where it quickly went viral.
"She said, 'Don't worry, it'll just go to my 300 Facebook friends,'" Abby recalled.
When they checked a few days later, the post had racked up millions of views, shares, and comments from around the world.
"It really put things in perspective for me," Abby said.
"Like, sure, I'd love to have 100 boxes of presents to open and expensive things. But, in reality, I wouldn't trade this gift my parents gave me for anything."
Right now, the box is in Abby's kitchen, where she said she's still going through the letters, two or three at a time, to make sure she's absorbed every word and every ounce of love.
And for the rest of us who wish we'd thought of this ourselves, Abby's story serves as a powerful reminder that, years from now, what we'll value most is the time we shared and the memories we created with our loved ones.
Even if the only place we have to keep them is our hearts.