3. Generationally Challenged

3. Generationally Challenged

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


Generationally Challenged

It’s hard for me to get used to these changing times. I can remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty.

~George Burns

Another trip to visit my parents, another milestone as I notice their even slower walking and the increasing focus on their meals. With each visit, their delight to see me is progressively underlined by their awe at the adult I have become.

There is something new on this visit, though; I have brought my laptop computer. Every AOL robotic chant “You’ve got mail” brings them rushing in. They stand mute, their faces disapproving, as though the computer defies God in some mysterious way.

I am chatting with a friend at a café when my cell phone rings. My mother interrupts to report that the power in the entire building is off.

“Call the electric company,” I say.

“It’s your computer.”

“What about my computer?”

“You know,” she says. I used to hear her voice not through my ears but through my skin. Now it is breathless, flustered. “The computer has burned up the switches.”

“Mom, my computer will go up in smoke before it burns the switches for the entire building.”

“So how come we have no electricity?”

The next day, as I am nursing a late morning cup of coffee in the kitchen, my mother pulls out the chair across from me. The resolved squeeze of her lips tells me something serious is about to be discussed. Maybe her living will.

“We got a wake-up call this morning,” she says. “At five o’clock.”

I look at her, waiting.

“The phone rang funny. Ding… ding… ding….” When I seem to have turned into a dimwit, she explains, “It’s your modem.”

I sip my coffee, my eyes registering the faint remains of the cheekbones of her youth, the cheekbones I inherited, and which one day, too, will be no more.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“We didn’t order a wake-up call.” Her tone means it is all self-explanatory.

“What does this have to do with my modem?” I ask.

“Isn’t it connected to the phone line? It made the phone ring!”

Slowly, I put down my cup. I count slowly. One, two, three. “My modem doesn’t make your phone ring. It only dials out for data.”

“So why would our phone ring at five o’clock in the morning?”

“I’ll disconnect the modem whenever it’s not in use. Okay?”

But the solution rattles my father. He picks up the end of the phone cord—his phone cord—its plug loose on the desk. Fumbling for the context in which to frame his question, he examines the small, clear plastic tip, turning it around for a better view.

“This wasn’t meant to be plugged in and out,” he finally says. “It will break.”

“All over America, every day, plugs are being plugged and unplugged,” I say. “These plastic thingies are sturdy little creatures.”

“It will break.” Gently, he lays it down and turns to leave. But the room—with his books, with his lemon-scented after-shave—is still filled with his presence.

I follow him out and touch his shoulder. “Tell you what; I’ll stop in the hardware store and buy my own cord.”

The next evening, while I’m out visiting a friend, my cell phone rings. On the crystal display I identify the number of my parents’ joint cell phone, the one that is for “emergencies.”

My mother is agitated. “We told you,” she says. “Now our home phone is dead.”

“At least you won’t get any wake-up call at five o’clock in the morning,” I say.

“You really have to do something about your computer. Since you arrived it has given us nothing but trouble.”

“Okay, Mom.” I sigh. “I’m sorry. I’ll put it away.”

For the next several years, when visiting, I stay with friends whose building electricity, phone service—and wellbeing—remain unaffected by my laptop.

This year, when I arrive at my parents’ apartment, they lead me to the study. There, on a polished oak stand, a new computer greets me, its large monitor gleaming through a clear vinyl protective cover.

“What happened?” I asked.

My mother replies in the no-nonsense, purposeful tone I haven’t heard in years. “Oh, on the way back from another funeral we stopped at the computer store. They gave us a good deal.”

“I’ll e-mail to the grandchildren,” my father interjects. The creases on his cheeks bunch up with pride. “And it will cost nothing. Your sister’s son will show me how.”

My nephew is nine years old. I could ask how the electric power and phone lines will withstand the extra traffic, but something swells up in me. In my head I hear the drum beat of time receding. Unexpectedly, unknowingly, my parents have made it turn around, go someplace else. I don’t remember ever being so proud of them.

“I want to improve my bridge game.” There is a new spark in my mother’s eyes as she points to a stack of software packages. She fumbles behind the computer and plugs it into the electric socket. “Just install these games and show me how they work.”

But as I lift the monitor cover and turn on the power switch, I can’t read the screen. My eyes are misty.

~Talia Carner

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