Family Matters: Changing Seasons
A daughter gains appreciation of her mother at the intersection of the generation gap and the digital divide.
My mother is learning to use e-mail. My brother, Michael, who lives near her, set her up with a computer and is teaching her. But it’s a very slow process. Last week she left me this message on my answering machine: Barb, I’m so frustrated. I just wrote you a letter on the e-mail and right in the middle, it disappeared. I don’t know where it went and how to get it back. This happened before when I was writing to Michael
and then I had to start all over again.
Explaining Windows to my mother is not easy. I try this:
“They’re more like blankets than Windows, Mom. You know how you can lay one blanket over another on the bed? That’s what’s happening on the computer. One window kind of lays over another. They’re still there—open—even when you don’t see them. And then sometimes you make one small by clicking outside of the window, like when you take a blanket from the top of the pile and fold it and put it at the bottom of the bed. It’s still there, just folded and smaller, on the bottom—that’s where your e-mails went. You probably clicked outside of the window.”
Oh, she says. Uh huh.
She doesn’t get it.
“When Michael comes over, Mom, he’ll show you,” I say. “I mean it—all your lost e-mails are lined up at the bottom of the screen, like folded blankets.”
This to a woman who for years couldn’t remember the difference between a VCR and a video tape.
I rented the VCR of Tootsie the other day, Barb. I love that movie. If you think of any other good VCR’s for me to rent, let me know.
All this has made my mother endearing, but I’m not sure how this happened because she used to plain annoy me. A few years ago, the VCR thing would get my eyes rolling like an adolescent’s. “Mom, it’s a video,” I’d say. “The VCR is the machinery. The video is the tape you rent.”
Oh. Uh huh.
But now she can rent all the VCR’s she wants and I just chuckle and feel warm inside. Maybe this has something to do with my turning 50, my mother turning 75 and my daughter turning 17. Now I’m the one who’s annoying, my daughter is the one rolling her eyes, and my mother is the sweet, lovable gramma my grandmother used to be.
When I boot up my computer and I see my mother’s name among those in my inbox, I read her e-mail first—before the work-related messages I’ve been impatient to receive. “They can wait,” a voice tells me from deep inside. “They’ll still be here when she’s not.”
One day you finally grow up and realize that the woman who birthed you, diapered you, caught you when you took your first steps, spanked you when you talked back, screamed at you when you skipped Yom Kippur services, kissed you fiercely when you went to overnight camp, slapped your face when you let a boy touch your breasts, let you stay home from school when you weren’t really sick, never let you see her naked, made you make your brother’s bed, slammed the door on you when you brought home a Christian boyfriend, bought you the prettiest prom dress in the store, treated your husband like a son, wept when you announced you were pregnant, set up a trust fund for your kids and said she was sorry, truly sorry, for all the mistakes she made raising you—this woman may not be here much longer.
I’ve made a separate folder for my mother’s e-mails, saving them because I know some day I will want to open each one and read it again. A cyber memory-chest. Much like the box of birthday cards I’ve kept for years, each one with some tacky Hallmark greeting. But they don’t seem sentimental when I read them: You’re the Most Wonderful Daughter a Mother Could Ever Hope For. Instead they sound genuine, as if she’s looking me directly in the face and telling me what I mean to her.
It’s not that my mother’s e-mails say much. They tell me what she did that day, which is what she does most every day: the bridge game, the stretches from the physical therapist, the favorite radio show. And she’ll ask about me.
Have you written any papers lately? Maybe you could send me your papers on the e-mail, but Michael will have to show me how to get it off the computer.
It used to bother me when she called my essays “papers.” It sounded so high school. “They’re essays,” I’d tell her with a breathy impatience, as if I were in high school. Now papers sounds ordinary—appropriate. What’s wrong with it? What was ever wrong with it?
I have a tendency to pronounce the names of my daughter’s teachers wrong. I say Aanna instead of Ahnna, Alex instead ofAlec. This bothers her. She also doesn’t like the way I lick my finger before turning a page, and she’s informed me that when I sneeze, it’s always in threes. I understand; I still can’t stand when my mother sucks on hard candies and makes that tsking sound.
I wonder how long it will take for my daughter to start thinking I’m endearing. And to start realizing that I’m the one person in the world who makes her a star. I certainly have taken a while to appreciate that my mother is my biggest fan. I used to accuse her of being a mere spectator, of getting her kicks off of her kids’ lives instead of her own. I fiercely judged her lifestyle, believing her complacent, unambitious, downright boring. I didn’t like to see her settle in her Volvo and drive half a mile for milk, or napping on her bed with her feet resting on top of the neatly folded blankets at the bottom or sorting languidly through racks of clothes at a department store.
I wanted her off the bed and jogging into town for the milk, a list of urgent errands tucked into the pocket of her running shorts. I wanted her managing the department store, a clipboard in hand and a crisp, efficient smile on her face. I wanted her to be more than the daughter of a stern religious father who convinced her that girls were ineffectual, more than the subservient housewife to a man who believed the same. I wanted so badly for her to show me all a woman could be that I didn’t see the woman she was: a mother who could cook, clean and organize her household with the best of them; a mother who whooped and hollered and waved her banner in the bleachers when her children’s accomplishments ran circles around her own. Instead I’d bristle at her slow, lazy drawl and clip through my sentences to offset her languor. How young I was—last year.
Reading my mother’s e-mails now is like hearing her calling me from far away. Her e-mail voice is thin and light, like the thin blue letters on the screen. It’s the sweetest voice she’s had. It’s my mother at her best—who she’s becoming the older she gets.
I’m embarrassed by all the typing errors I’m making. Michael didn’t show me how to correct them yet. Computer writing is different than a typewriter. It’s nice to brush up on my typing—I haven’t typed since I was a girl.
I like thinking about that girl. I see her in a 40’s hairdo, a tight roll of bangs across her forehead and the rest in curls dangling softly on her neck. Curiously, because of e-mail I can picture her this way. Slamming away at the keyboard. Young. Discrete. Before she was a mother. Someone free and wild and light. Someone I’d really love to get to know.
Barbi Schulick’s work has appeared in Yoga Journal, Health and The Sun. She tutors high school students and cares for her family in southern Vermont.
|Editor’s Note: The mother and son pictured in the photograph accompanying “Finding a Village” in the March Family Matters column are Debra and Joshua Nodiff.|