I owe my career to the people who have openly, and for the most part, freely, shared “how-to”, and/or connected with me, on the internet. In fact, it isn’t even a small amount of hyperbole to say my life would be NOTHING like it is now without the internet…I’m struggling to think of anything that would be like it is. I have always been grateful for, awed by, and passionate about, The Internet. It really IS a World Wide Web. But sometimes, people get trapped by the web in a way that suffocates or isolates them, instead of supports them. That’s what happened to my grandma.
My grandma lived to be 102. She died in 2013, with me and others who loved her, nearby. From the time I moved away at 18, until I lost her in 2013, I saw her almost every year, and sometimes more than once a year. I’d hang out with her and help her run errands. One particular time, she called asking me to visit for a specific purpose. She had a job for me to do, and she wanted my ‘computer skills’. She wanted me to re-do her address book. She informed me it was because….are you ready for what she said? She was “sick of flipping through all these dead people”.
When I was done simultaneously laughing and crying for her, I booked a flight and went up there. I got a USB internet access device, so I could connect to the internet at her house, and I brought my laptop with me. My grandmother had never touched a computer, or seen a laptop in person. I showed her what a CD was, because she’d never seen one of those either. I let her type on my computer. I made the font giant, so she could see it, and she typed “I love you” in a Word or Google doc. She grinned, and looked and touched and grinned some more.
And then we got to work on her address book. She told me stories about every person in there, while I typed the survivors into a document I’d later use to create her a new book. One of the biggest regrets of my life to date is that I didn’t record that experience! Those stories, her memory, all those people in her life…I don’t remember any of them well enough to retell. I just remember being overwhelmed, touched and amazed by the experience, and her astonishing memory.
Not long after, when I was bemoaning to myself how I’d forgotten all those stories, and regretting how I hadn’t recorded them, it struck me how dependent I, and others are, on devices to store what she had to use her brain to hang onto. My memory muscle is positively atrophied compared to hers for things like this. In her lifetime, if she wanted to recall information quickly, she really didn’t have a choice but to remember it. Even writing it down wouldn’t have worked for her, because she already hung onto everything. She’d never have been able to dig through all the paper she’d have generated writing it all down. Although, now that I think about this, if writing it down didn’t cause her to release it from her memory, like it does for me, she’d probably have been able to easily recall what page and book something was in!
Besides her unparalleled memory for people and events, I admired my grandmother’s stamina. Her grit, her curiosity, and her hope were always visible, even under her sometimes crusty, cranky exterior.
I think this particular visit I’m telling you about happened in 2010. Ironically, I wouldn’t have to use much of my memory to figure out the date, because I still have the document she wrote “I love you” in, stored somewhere on one of my hard drives or on Google. Instead, I’d have to use my memory to figure out where the document is.
The reason I think it was around 2010, though, without finding the document, is that I DO remember thinking about how she was 98 or 99…when I asked her this question:
“Of all the things you’ve seen in your life…wars, industrial revolution, flight, the depression, urbanization, etc., what’s the one thing you’ve seen that’s changed the world more than anything else.”
Her answer, given without even a breath of hesitation? “The World Wide Web. That Internet”.
But her tone wasn’t filled with the gratitude and awe I have for the Internet, and everyone who participates in it. It wasn’t for the reasons many of us value it…the open sharing of information, the resources instantly available for any of us with access. It wasn’t because of all the applications that allow us to do our jobs, keep track of our property and our responsibilities, entertain ourselves, store our memories, and connect to each other.
Instead, she felt the exact opposite about it. She found the existence of the internet to be the most isolating, handicapping thing she’d ever experienced, because she couldn’t participate. Since the internet became so popular, if she called someone for information, they referred her to the internet. If she needed a form, someone gave her a web address. If she wanted to know something, do something, reach someone, share something…the web, the web, the web, the web…was the only reasonably viable option she had many, many times.
Like I said, she was around 98–99 when I asked her this question. She was already sick to the top of her perfectly permed hair with people talking over her or past her, as if she didn’t exist or was too stupid or old to understand anything.
Add to that, she had macular degeneration, so she couldn’t see well.
Her beautiful hands, the ones she used to type all manner of things on a typewriter when she was a school secretary, and had cooked and baked and cared for others her whole life with, had long ago gotten too painfully gnarled from arthritis to be of use to her on anything as delicate as a computer keyboard.
She was starting to lose her hearing, which didn’t help her understand new words and concepts.
For at least a few decades, she’d been driving all “the old ladies” around, but a few years before this visit, she’d lost her license. This loss cut her off socially. (“Old ladies”, by the way, were her friends who couldn’t drive themselves around anymore…that made them “old” to her, even though all of them were younger than her, a large number of them by 10–20 years.)
She became utterly isolated from information, resources and community…in the end because of her own physical limitations, but for years before that, because of the very thing that made my life so much richer and more convenient.
We talked a lot about how much sharing goes on “out there”. I showed her websites (she could still see well enough then to get a sense of them.) We even looked up macular degeneration together, so I would have a better understanding of what she was able to see. I told her about how many people give information, share stories and knowledge, connect to each other…Like I’m doing now, with you, if you’re reading this.
And I tearfully told her how very sorry I was that it wasn’t something she could be a part of. I know she would have loved it, because she was such a curious, resourceful woman. I do think she’d have objected to all the privacy invasion, though. :) This particular visit was the most open she’d ever been about her life, and I know I only saw a small sliver of it. She liked to keep her information to herself!
My grandma did have her own version of sharing. She loved to cook, and she especially loved to bake. She was ALWAYS making goodies for friends, people in her church, neighbors, and me. I still have many of her handwritten recipes in a little file box in my cupboard, and I still make some of them. That particular visit? She showed me how to make strawberry rhubarb cobbler. I don’t remember how anymore…but I do remember it was super yummy. I took her to run errands, and I took her to see some of her friends. (That woman had some stamina. She’d last running 12 hours of errands and chores without a nap…at 98 years old.)
And at the end of the visit, she shared one of her favorite treasures with me. She gave me a Hummel that she’d won. It had a piece of those desk calendar flip-a-day papers in it, dated something like October of 1957. On the paper it said “Upon my death, give this to Frieda XXXX at XXXX W. New York Ave., Oshkosh, Wisconsin (see, I’m respecting grandma’s privacy! :) “. She told me the story of that Hummel and I remember this one. Someone at her school had won it in a drawing at a party. The woman didn’t like it, thought it was ugly trash. But my grandma knew what it was, and knew it was valuable, so she’d piped up and said “I’ll take it.” The woman handed it over and shrugged. Shortly after, the woman found out it was a Hummel and had value, so she wanted it back. My grandma graciously gave it back to her. In exchange, the woman wrote up that piece of paper, willing it to my grandma, stuck it in the hole in the bottom of the Hummel, and took it home with her. She was quite a bit younger than my grandma, so neither of them thought it would ever end up in my grandma’s possession. There’s something to be said for tangible pieces of paper stored in just the right place, instead of lost on someone’s hard drive or stored on the web…because when that woman died, her relatives found the piece of paper, and gave that Hummel back to my grandma. She told me “See? We shared the Hummel. Just not at the same time.”
And as a thank you for helping her with her address book, and for sharing the internet with her, she shared her yummy cobbler, and that Hummel with me.
~ cj 2017.03.02