“I’m thinking of getting a computer,” my mother said to me on the phone from the east coast the summer she was turning 80.
“Why would you want to do that?” I asked.
“Well, I think I should,” she answered. “I think it’s time.”
For as long as I could remember, Mom had been taking computer classes. In the early 1960s, when I was starting elementary school, I recall her bringing home stacks of punched computer cards. Long before the advent of the PC she repeatedly took a variety of introductory classes, classes with titles like “Computers and the Modern Age” and “How the Computer Will Simplify Your Life.” I don’t think Mom ever got much out of those classes. Her concluding comment was always the same. “Why can’t they just make it simple?” she would protest. “So someone like me can understand.”
My mother is a well-educated woman. She received her bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Chicago. During the Second World War she was a naval officer in charge of a cryptographic library. She was always a practical person. When I entered seventh grade she entered graduate school. For six years she took one class a term so that the same year I graduated high school, she completed her master’s degree in library science and reentered the work force. Somehow, despite all the classes and all the education, the computer remained for her a threatening mystery in a box, utterly useless and compulsively frustrating. Mom always had a deep suspicion of most things electronic. As far as I know, she never used an ATM card. For her, the toaster was an evil, self-possessed appliance that could burst into flames at any time. She never left her house without unplugging it first. In her mind, bringing a computer into her home was the equivalent of smoking in bed. It wasn’t a question of whether disaster would strike but only when.
Even after the PC revolutionized computing Mom was still taking classes on things like “Programming in Basic.”
“I didn’t understand a thing,” she would say after the class was over.
“Well, why are you taking a programming class?” I would ask her. “Nobody needs to know how to program any more. You only need to know how to turn the thing on and off.”
“You don’t understand, Robert,” she would answer, “I need to know how the damn thing works.”
“Mom, do you understand how the car works?”
“Of course not!” she would say. “But I’m used to the car. For heaven’s sake, I’ve been driving for over 60 years.”
Realizations such as that would always throw Mom for a mental detour. “Is that possible?” she would ask no one in particular as I held the line a continent away. “How could I have been driving for 60 years? When was I born?” It always took Mom a few seconds to do the math. “I guess it is possible,” she would eventually conclude. “Oh well. Tempus fugit.”
Every time Mom visited me in California we would spend at least half a day with my computer. I would have her go through the tutorial and then, together, we would review pointing, clicking, dragging, saving, and printing. During one of her last ventures across the country, we even made our way onto the Internet. Although her attention waned while we searched and waited for stuff to download - this was in the days of dial-up - she did her best to look interested. At last the items we were searching for appeared on the screen.
“So you see,” I explained, “you can really find almost anything on the Net.”
“Yes,” Mom said. “It’s very impressive.”
I went on to explain that I might not need all the material I had downloaded and so would copy it into my word processor where I could manipulate the text. Mom nodded her head knowingly and then, looking around my office, asked, "Robert, where's your copier?"
Somehow Mom and the tutorial had failed to communicate. We began a physical tour of the computer. I pointed out the hard drive.
“Is that the same as the ROM?” Mom asked. Over the years she had taken so many courses that computer terms randomly passed through her mind like little mental asteroids or the floaters that occasionally swim through one’s field of vision.
“No,” I explained. “The ROM is on a chip, inside the box. We can’t actually see it.”
“Uh-huhn,” Mom said. “What about the E-PROM? Where’s that?”
It was time for a new strategy. I decided to attack Mom’s address book which was as thick as a Dagwood sandwich with Post-Its, scraps of paper, and ancient newspaper clippings. Guiding Mom’s every move on the keyboard, we opened a new database file, entered my address, and printed an envelope. I showed her how she could dial my phone number automatically. How the calendar function could remind her of her six grandchildren’s birthdays. The whole process took about 10 minutes.
“So you mean I would have to enter all this information in the computer?” she asked as she reached over and repossessed her address book with both hands.
“Yes, that’s right,” I told her enthusiastically. “But you only have to do it the first time.”
“I see,” she said, nodding her head. “I think I get the idea. It’s lovely Robert. Let me take you out for lunch.”
Every time Mom visited we would go through exactly the same steps. Each time she always came to the same unspoken conclusion.
When the community college library where Mom worked went digital it was just about the last straw.
“I’m going to quit,” she said of the part-time job that she had held for 25 years.
It wasn't much of a school she worked at but the job kept her busy since the last of her kids left home. The students amused her. She never tired of telling me about the young man who came to her for help, explaining that he had to do a report on John F. Kennedy.
“Who’s he?” he wanted to know.
For years and years, she commuted twice a week - an hour each way - to work a four-hour shift as a reference librarian. I never understood it, but she never wanted to give that job up. “Why would you want to retire?” I asked her at the time. “You love that job.”
“It’s not fun anymore,” she said. “They’re taking out the card catalog and none of these damn computers can talk to each other and I can’t find anything anymore. Now they want me to take a six-week class on the Internet. I think I’m just going to retire. Twenty-five years. It’s enough already.”
Through cutbacks, schedule changes, and traffic snarling snowstorms, Mom always made it to work. She held on to that job with more resolve than some eastern European dictators held on to theirs. Always nervous about being let go, forever fretting that her bosses would finally realize she was more than a decade over the mandatory retirement age, she never missed a day of work.
“Look, why don’t you just take the class and if it doesn’t work out, well, then you can decide what to do,” I advised her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just can’t get it. I want to know how the thing works and no one can explain it to me. All they ever talk about are a bunch of ones and zeros and how that adds up to anything I’ll never know.”
“But I don’t know either Mom,” I would tell her. “No one knows. There are just a few people in the whole world who get it. But so long as it works, it doesn’t matter, does it?”
“Well, it matters to me,” she would say, closing the subject.
A decade or so earlier one of my brothers had put Mom’s trusted Royal electric typewriter in the basement and replaced it with a word processor. The Royal was a massive metal thing that clearly meant business. At 65 words a minute, the flying keys beat out a stenographic symphony that filled Mom’s house with the smart sound of determination. On the Royal’s throne, my brother put one of those flimsy plastic early generation word processors that came with a microscopic screen. Although not quite a computer, it had cut and paste capabilities and documents could be stored on a diskette.
Mom absolutely hated it.
“I can’t see what I’m typing,” she would say. “The damn thing doesn’t print until I get to the end of the line. Then I still can’t see what I’ve written until I’ve typed another two lines.”
“Mom, you’re supposed to look at the screen.”
“But I don’t want to look at the screen. I want to see what I’m typing.”
“But Mom what you’re typing is on the screen.”
“Yes, but I want to see it on the paper. I need to see it on the paper. My God, who designs these things?”
“Mom, just try looking at the screen.”
“Robert, did I tell you I’m wearing trifocals now? You just try wearing trifocals and typing on this damn thing.”
The next time I visited Mom she asked me to get the Royal out of the basement. But after years of use, the platen had hardened and could no longer hold a piece of paper in place. The machine had acquired a kind of typographic Bell’s palsy. The lines of Mom’s letters drooped a bit more each week as the Royal continued to lose its grip. The overall effect was that of a poorly scrawled ransom note.
“Mom, if you’re not going to use the word processor, why don’t you at least fix the typewriter?” I asked her.
“Robert, I’m not spending good money to fix a thirty-year old typewriter. Besides they don’t even make parts for it anymore.” At the time, I expected that before long I would be reading Mom’s letters vertically, as though they had been written in Japanese.
About halfway through Mom’s Internet class I called up to get her e-mail address at work and tell her mine. She didn’t know hers. She would have to look it up. A few days later it arrived through the regular mail, typed, crippled really, pathetically sliding down the page. I called her back and told her to be on the lookout for an e-mail from me.
“Welcome to cyberspace,” I e-mailed her. “Love Robert.”
A week later, I signed on and found a response from Mom.
“Dear Robert,” it began, “received your message. Will respond as soon as I learn how. When will you be at home?”
I stared at Mom’s message for quite a while trying to get inside her thought process. I couldn’t. The door was closed. But Mom had gotten on the information superhighway. Her turn signal was on, but she was driving. Sort of.
At first her e-mails were short and cryptic. They had that “Well, time to get off the phone” air about them, the way long distance phone calls from the cost-conscious sometimes do. But week by week, as Mom got more and more comfortable with e-mail, her messages expanded to complete sentences and even paragraphs.
Even after Mom completed her six-week Internet class, not all the concepts were firmly lodged in her mind. “What’s an ISP?” she asked me.
“Internet Service Provider,” I explained.
“So is Yahoo! an Internet Service Provider?” she asked.
“No, Yahoo! is a search engine,” I told her. “America On-Line is an ISP.”
“I see,” she said. “Will I need a hard drive to use a search engine?”
I found myself searching for analogies that would succeed in breaking through Mom’s resistance to the silicon world. “Mom,” I said, “an ISP is kind of like a combination of your local phone company, the post office and voice mail. You just call the long distance number and they take care of it. The message hangs out at the post office until you go to your box and see what’s there. A search engine is more like directory assistance. So America On-Line is like the phone company and Yahoo! is like when you dial 411.”
“All right, fine,” Mom said curtly. “Now what’s the difference between the Internet and the Web?”
Once Mom finally got the hang of email, we spoke less and less often on the phone. Letters stopped altogether. The Net brought us into more frequent contact but without much charm and without much intimacy. Our little e-mails zipped back and forth, nothing too long, nothing too vital. Just a few more bits of electronic litter in our disposable society. The Royal went back to the basement. When at last Mom had to move out of her home of 50 years, the local typewriter repair shop that had seen to it over several decades wanted nothing to do with it.
"What am I going to do with another typewriter?" the man at the shop said. He didn't even want it for free.
For years and years Mom and I exchanged weekly letters. I have boxes of them. They were contemplative. They included current events, quotes from literature, newspaper clippings, occasionally a weathered photograph from some forgotten album, and always a summary of the obituaries from my hometown. E-mailed tidbits and snippets supplanted that rich correspondence. And now, years later, the last letters that I have from her are the ones with the characters drooping down the page at the end of every line. I used to think that Mom's getting on the Net after such a long and arduous struggle was wonderful. Now it feels more like a shame.
A version of this story appeared in the May 10, 1998 edition of the San Francisco Examiner.