Ever since I was a little girl, my grandmother swore that she would never go online.
My grandmother, whom I call “Mamaw”, is the only mother I have ever known. She raised me and we are cut from the same cloth, the same soul in two bodies. She’s one of the few people on the planet who laughs at my hackneyed jokes. And I always compliment her.
Whenever I asked Mamaw if she would learn to use a computer, she always replied, “Why should I have to use the Internet? I have everything and everyone I need here at home.”
COVID-19 has changed these requirements. My sister, who lives nearby, could no longer visit her. And I was stuck in a different state and worried about Mamaw. Although she is a strong woman, she still falls into the “high risk” category for COVID-19.
And I knew the loneliness of the quarantine was affecting my family’s health. Researchers have found that social belonging is essential to our mental health. Without this human connection, many people, especially the elderly, will suffer isolation and depression during this pandemic. Suddenly, like countless others, my grandmother was no longer able to enjoy her normal affiliation options: watching her great-grandchildren, going to church or visiting friends.
My three year old niece was the one who suggested using Facebook Messenger to talk to Mamaw. If there is an unbreakable law in our world, it is when a great-grandson wants something, a great-grandmother will see to it.
Eventually, Mamaw broke her vow against the internet and agreed to try video chat. She hated the idea of learning new digital tools, but she hadn’t seen her great-grandchildren in over a month, and she’d walk any mountain or download an app to keep our family together.
In April I went to see my hard of hearing grandmother for the first time in a year. We’d called almost every weekend, but our patchy connection made it difficult for her to understand me. Now she would use a tablet to video chat with me.
I knew this was a big step in our relationship. Learning new things can be scary for anyone. I could imagine Mamaw pushing herself way out of her comfort zone to connect virtually.
New technologies can separate the older generation from the younger ones. But my grandmother and many elders have adapted to numerous (international) disasters and technological changes in their lives. From the rise of television and the invention of the cell phone to disposable menstrual products, technology has dramatically changed the way my grandmother interacts with the world. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when Mamaw started using video chat. Innovation and plasticity were just as much in her upbringing as in mine.
I called her on Facebook Messenger and asked if she would answer. Then suddenly I saw her face. Her eyebrows drew together as she peered at her screen.
“Can … can you hear me?” I asked.
“Yeah. Well, not really,” she said. “I can read your lips. I know what you’re saying.” My room was a mess, but I took her on a virtual tour of my apartment.
“You look as beautiful as ever,” I said and she rolled her eyes. Your camera could have been upside down and its sound muted, but I wouldn’t have cared. It felt like we were finally together again.
But I could tell that Mamaw felt vulnerable. When she accidentally hung up a call or delayed our video chat, she said, “It’s hard for me to hear people. Sometimes people treat me like I’m stupid if I can’t hear them and .. . “”
She didn’t say it, but I could imagine what might come next – “When I learn video chat, I feel stupid too.”
Although my grandmother didn’t know it at the time, I could empathize. I had kept my diagnosis of tinnitus to myself to the point where I couldn’t understand masked grocery store workers because I couldn’t read their lips. I felt like people thought I was stupid if I had to ask them to repeat themselves or if I heard them wrong.
The video chat bridged the hearing loss and the physical distance between me and my grandmother. When she saw me on her tablet, Mamaw could read my lips. If I had to, I could read hers too. Our communication wasn’t always perfect. Sometimes the video would lag or freeze and we would have to start our conversation where we left off. But for the first time in a long time we had a starting place.
The vulnerability of learning new technologies opened up a safe space for us to trust one another. Mamaw couldn’t hide her hearing loss. And she didn’t hide her discomfort with the digital platform. It seemed unfair that I was hiding something about myself from her, and I ended up opening up about my own hearing loss.
When my grandmother struggled and managed to use video chat, we found a new respect for each other. I realized that Mamaw’s desire to learn this skill was an expression of love – an expression I should extend to her as well.
During our chats, she held her tablet on the kitchen counter. I could see the familiar apple pattern on the walls. My family loves apples, and creating an apple recipe is a rite of passage for Brooks women. When I looked into her kitchen, I recognized my grandmother’s recipes and asked her to teach me how to make peanut butter chocolate chip cookies or fried apple pie. She felt more connected to the technologies I was using every day, and I reconnected with my family heritage and oral tradition.
Our family’s love offers constant protection against social insecurity, although we must find new ways to express that love. The video chat made us feel like we were in each other’s lives. And that belonging was a link in our family’s spiritual wellbeing during quarantine.
Our story is one of thousands. People of all ages use FaceTime, Messenger, and other apps to socialize from the security of their home. Tech companies encourage elders to use social media to keep in touch with loved ones. Families chat on video to teach grandparents digital skills or teach grandchildren how to bake sourdough.
So I wonder: where are my grandmother’s and my digital relationships going from here? Since we will have to live separately for the foreseeable future, we can both continue to adapt. We may wonder if there are better solutions to communicate with our hearing impairments.
Meanwhile, the silence doesn’t ring that loud when we see each other smiling from our screens.
Laken Brooks is a PhD student at the University of Florida studying disability, gender, and the digital humanities. When not studying and teaching, she is a freelance writer for CNN, Inside Higher Ed, Good Housekeeping, and other national publications.