In 1967, when I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, I called my parents once a week from the pay phone at the end of my hall on the 4th floor of Center Myers Dorm. It was typically a Sunday night and we girls would queue up, waiting our turn to ask the operator to please place a collect call to our families back home.
For the duration of my college years, my mother wrote to me faithfully once a week, although I don’t remember ever writing her back. In one letter, she wrote of a dream she’d had the night before, a dream in which I’d fallen or jumped out of a window and died. I suppose, at the end of the week, on a Sunday evening, I placed a collect call to let her know I wasn't dead.
When my own children were young, I remember going to the Master’s Golf Tournament each April and returning home late in the evening, worrying toward the end of the trip that something terrible might have happened to them, since there was no way anyone could have gotten in touch with their father or me. Another time, we grown-ups went out only to come home and find a fire truck in front of our house. After a short panic, we learned that our next-door neighbor had called in an alarm when her heat was turned on for the first time in months, giving off that burning smell we all know so well but forget each summer.
Opportunities for parents and offspring to communicate have certainly burgeoned in the last twenty years, sometimes to the consternation of the offspring. I can keep in touch with my now grown children via email, phone, text messaging, and paper mail, I guess, although that doesn’t happen very often. I can also stalk, I mean check up on them via MySpace, Facebook, online banking, and electronic credit card records (if I can just figure out their passwords). So far, they've held my Skype queries at bay lest I spy on them at all times day and night.
I once decided my son, Billy, was depressed because of the “sad face” emoticon on his MySpace page. When I called to ask if he needed psychiatric help, he responded that the little-picture choices on MySpace were quite limited and, shortly thereafter, he left MySpace for Facebook, hoping I wouldn’t notice.
Having each of my children “friend” me on Facebook through intimidation and guilt trips was a coup I’m still proud of, although they sometimes toy with me via that particular social network. Just this past April Fools Day, my daughter, Molly, posted an engagement announcement with an “April Fools Mom” a few hours later. However, I outsmarted her by going to bed so early that, by the time I read the posting the next morning, she’d already had to explain her prank a dozen times to other “friends”.
The problem I have isn’t that I’m not able to keep up with how (and what) my kids are doing on a weekly or even daily basis. It seems I need a minute-by-minute update; otherwise, I tend to think something disastrous has happened. This is especially true for my baby who lives about an hour and a half away and who, at 25, is way too young to be on her own. My two older children, both in Oregon, get a break because of the long distance and time difference. Whereas, my mother seemed to be okay with not knowing if I were dead for an entire week, I have to be constantly informed. It’s gotten to the point that Molly and I text each other at least once a day with the message “not dead.” That’s a worrisome thing for a mother and daughter, isn’t it?
One of my young teacher friends recently had a fight with her mother over this exact issue. It seems my friend got busy one evening and didn’t answer her phone for a couple of hours. By the next day, she and her mother weren’t speaking and, when she came to me with her problem, I told her to call, text, or email her mother immediately to tell her she understood her concern that she might be dead, and that a quick Skype feed might not hurt either.
My children and I even have an agreement about what to do in a cell phone emergency. If, by some crazy set of events, all our cell phones fall into our separate toilets at the same time, we are to consult and use our printed phone lists which we keep in our wallets since we no longer know anyone’s phone number, including our own. The primary problem with this plan is, if all of our cell phones were to be out of commission at the bottom of various bowls in some kind of sublime serial synchronicity, we wouldn’t have a phone with which to call from or to, as not a single one of us has a land line. Another problem is that I’m the only one who actually made a list.
We (mainly I) also have a major catastrophe plan. If a nuclear holocaust or a natural disaster happens, we are each to call the kids’ father’s number since my ex is one of the few people we know who still has a land line and it’s the same number he’s had for thirty years. In addition, I believe his phone still has a rotary dial and I'm pretty sure he will have lots of beer.
I'd been planning to end this story with yet more cataclysmic silliness but, when I re-read the previous paragraph, I was suddenly gripped with memories of people in Haiti, in Iraq, in our own New York City, when the unthinkable did happen, and all the newest and best means of communication couldn’t stop the heartbreak of not knowing if loved ones were alive or dead. At that point, I realized that, while technology can help us to keep in touch, even to the point of obsession, love and loss are still a part of human experience, and the ability to text message can’t ensure the safety of my loved ones.
I do believe, however, that worrying about and caring for our family and friends, and even those we don’t know, is an important part of God’s Big Plan, and, perhaps, modern technology can help us do that. I recall hearing about the huge role cell phones and computers played in the Haiti recovery effort in those first days after the earthquake, and that online donations, many for just a few dollars, ended up helping to save and support many lives.
Ultimately, I finally remembered that my mother’s dream about my being dead led her to call, not write, that next morning, a weekday, not a Sunday, something almost unheard of in my frugal, yet loving, family in 1967, and I knew that she, too, worried about me to the point of using the latest technology (and to hell with the cost) to be sure her baby was safe. To her credit, she didn't ask if I needed to see a psychiatrist.