This post was originally published on the Library of Congress blog.
My mother is 75. And that means a lot. It means she’s lived over 27,000 days, which is a whole bunch of days. It means she remembers when watching television was for fancy people—a luxury. Same as running water. And electricity. She remembers the civil rights movement, the March on Washington, the death of Dr. King and President Kennedy. She remembers America going to war and to the moon and to the disco. She remembers the first computer, the first beeper (ask your parents) and the first cellphone. And it’s this last one, the cell phone—well, really the “smart” phone—that’s stumped her. It’s the smart phone, its glowing touchscreen and cartoonish icons, that’s turned her 75 years into what feels to her like 75 minutes.
Don’t get me wrong. She can answer the phone, and make calls. She can even text message, but this would require an entirely different newsletter to explain how long it took me to convince her to even try (she was always afraid she’d hit the wrong letters, as if that matters). I’ve even—and you won’t believe this—but I’ve even gotten her to FaceTime with me over the last year, even though she still doesn’t quite grasp the idea that she’s on speakerphone and doesn’t need to put the phone to her ear. And when she does, I get a full glimpse of what’s going on in her head. Literally.
But last week, she called me (on her house phone), distressed.
“J, I need you to teach me how to send pictures to people on my phone,” she said.
“You want to send someone pictures?”
“No,” she said. “But I want to know how to.”
So, I went to her house, and started the tutorial. First, I had to teach her how to take a photo. Then, I had to show her how to find the photo she’d taken. Then, I had to show her how to send it through text.
It took hours. HOURS. And she kept thanking me. Kept apologizing for not understanding this new language, this new (to her) technology. And I kept telling her it was fine. Because it was fine. As a matter of fact, it was better than fine. It was fantastic. Sure, there were frustrating moments, especially when she’d get frustrated with herself. And it was challenging for me to figure out new ways to explain things, reworking my own definitions to help her understand. To meet her where she was. We practiced and practiced, tried and tried, running through it again and again, me trying to help, her begging me not to. And eventually, that weird series of sounds we’ve all gotten used to came through. The sound of a cartoon droplet chimed from her phone, and the ding of a bell from mine. She’d sent. I’d received. She was happy. And I … was something else. I mean, I guess happy is one of the words I’d use. But I was also … full. Because I’d taught my mother something. I’d given the woman who has given me everything a new language. A new skill. A new opportunity to express joy. And in that moment, a moment where learning was recycled between the two of us like breath—she breathing out while I breathed in, only to breathe out again for her to inhale my breath, which was technically her old breath—life unto life, I realized that this is the true meaning of relationship. Of family.
Young reader, I want this for you. You know things your parents don’t know, just like they know things you don’t know. But the only way our specialties are activated is if we’re all open to learn, which means we all—yes, even your parents who are basically older kids—have to be willing to admit when we don’t know. Willing to make that call. Because it’s in the I don’t know where the new experience is. And it’s in the willingness to learn, where love feels electric.
And yes, she sends me pictures all the time.
And no, I can’t make out what any of them are.