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For her 85th birthday, I gave my mother an iPad. She’d never used a computer. She had a trying relationship with her TV remote control and a miserable track record with her cell, an old-style flip phone that she rarely bothered to take out of the drawer and, when she did, never thought to turn on.
She was keen on a tablet because she knew people who had them and she believed that if she didn’t keep up with technology, even in her own small way, she’d one day find herself in a computerized kitchen, “unable to open a can of soup.”
She loved the hot pink case that my husband picked out for her. She bought a notebook of the same colour in which to write instructions on how to work all the apps.
Our first task was e-mail. She quickly learned the fundamentals but couldn’t see the point of e-mailing when she could phone or visit in person.
Next, we tackled Netflix. Mom’s a movie lover with a seemingly bottomless appetite for murder mysteries, of the more macabre variety. She was astonished by the glut of crime thrillers that Netflix has on offer but what truly excited her was the Recommendations feature.
“The man thinks I’d like Hannibal,” she told me, breathlessly.
Mom is perfectly aware that there is no “man.” She is well-read and quick-witted, she knows that it’s an algorithm but chooses to ignore that fact. I’m not sure exactly why. I think she likes the idea that there is a human being out there somewhere taking an interest in her. A man in a virtual booth, queueing up films of her choosing, beaming them personally to her machine. Given how many of her friends have died, there are fewer people around to take an interest.
One Saturday she called because she was having trouble logging onto Netflix. I suggested it might require an update but she blew me off. “They probably have fewer people working as it’s a long weekend,” she told me.
Mom’s thinking is an entertaining mixture of present and past. She chats on about Drake and is devoted to the Weather Network, but still assumes that certain websites close at 5 p.m.
From the time she was 85 to 88, she used her tablet only when there was nothing else to do, then COVID-19 hit and it became her lifeline.
She learned to Zoom and FaceTime. She experimented with podcasts. She started e-mailing her grandchildren. She became curious about all the icons (“all the other little squares,” she said), so we set up a weekly tutorial, which takes place over the phone, each of us with our cup of tea and respective iPads in front of us. It is often hilarious, sometimes excruciating, always exhausting. My tablet is considerably older than hers, which means our displays are not identical so I have to rely on her to describe what she’s seeing on her screen.
One day I struggled for 45 minutes to help her find the search bar. “It looks like a magnifying glass,” I kept saying. “There’s a symbol, a magnifying glass.” Finally, in exasperation, she asked: “You mean the frying pan?”
Mom has her own names for the icons. “Settings” is the Oven Element. “Contacts” is the Recipe Box. “Podcasts” is A Portion of the Female Anatomy.
She turned 89 last month. Learning the tablet seems to have energized her. Recently, she suggested we take photos. So every morning for one week, we’d take a photo and e-mail it to the other.
Mom took a crooked shot of a vase. Then a blurry shot of the park from her living room window. Then a clearer shot of the empty street from her bedroom window. Then she took a photo of her feet.
She wanted to model the blue slippers she’d knitted, but all I could see was the swelling in her lower legs. What was going on? I asked, had she had herself checked? Oh, yes, she was fine, she assured me, “That’s just how I look now.”
It’s been years since I’ve seen my mother’s bare legs. Her skin, which bruises so easily now, is at once translucent and discoloured, full of blood vessels. I’ve saved all her other photos but had to delete that one, the visual reminder of how vulnerable she is.
Mom is an avid reader, so in one epic tutorial which lasted about as long as the Iron Age, we downloaded the library app, signed her up for an ecard and checked out a book. Now she regularly downloads ebooks herself. When they are not immediately available she puts them on hold and forgets about them, then is genuinely surprised when “the Man” e-mails her to tell her that a certain title is now available. “He’s very efficient,” she informs me.
We speak on the phone every day. Now, we also FaceTime, Zoom and e-mail. She powers through ebooks, marvelling that she can check them out or return them in the middle of the night. She binge-watches TV series. She knows what’s trending. She makes Netflix recommendations to me.
But she has not yet successfully surfed the Net. She grew up in Ireland and would like to read the Irish newspapers, but pop-up ads and sidebars are problematic. She “accidentally” touches them, then can’t get rid of them and ends up on strange pages. “What’s a universal head adapter?” she asked, after confiding to me that “there’s now potpourri for toilets!” When she gets stuck on an unwanted site, she shuts down the tablet and leaves it off for a couple of days. “In case the man thinks I’d like to buy one of those things.”
I can’t wait for the day when we can sit down in person, a pot of tea between us, and surf the Net together. In the meantime, it’s exhilarating to see how much her confidence has grown. Yesterday, she FaceTimed me. I’ve made a resolution, she announced. I’m going to learn how to operate every piece of technology in the apartment – including the devil TV remote.
Rona Waddington lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
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