Tuesday, January 10, 2012


An 84-Year-Old Sends Her First Text Message

Her fingers were always too shaky to type. Even a decade ago, when she was fresher, healthier, bouncier than she is now, she couldn’t do it. But she so wanted to. One day she came home and told me that her friend Bobbi had WebTV, that petrified totem to dialup, and that she wanted to email her. We walked over to the computer.

Her fingers jangled above the keyboard. “Hhhhii Boobbbii,,,” the email started. She got frustrated and walked away. Over the next 10 or so years, she never quite returned.


She’s 84, my grandmother, and as Dutch as a former American can be. Born in Holland, hidden in Holland, repatriated to Holland, she comes to visit about two times a year now. But otherwise she lives there, where she once saw a Nazi playing with her toys in her backyard. Where she was shuttled from hideout to hideout as a kid. Where her family went missing and all but her sister never came back.

But, as is always the case, now is not then. Now she lives in an Amsterdam apartment complex designated and subsidized for the elderly. It’s the kind of socialized benefit that makes too much sense to be offered in America. She moved to it when she was 77, spooked by a dysfunctional American healthcare system and nostalgic for her small remaining family overseas. Her children are here, her grandkids are here, and the country she once called home is here, but her 89-year-old sister is there. And so she is there.


This Thanksgiving, she was here. She flew to Maryland and then to Florida, where all of her kids and grandkids paid a visit, if not tribute. In the house it was loud with the sound of crosstalk, the kind of ambient chatter that shows like Parenthood try hard to manufacture. She didn’t follow it all; her ears have never been the same after the war — or perhaps, given how long it’s been, it’s more accurate to say her ears have always been the same since the war. “I don’t understand you!” she said every now and then, a resigned smile on her face. But it wasn’t the volume — we all long ago learned to talk to her with a raised voice — it was the speed. The conversation was moving too fast to track. Age had finally eclipsed her hearing aid.

Her grandkids — even the 14-year-old, especially the 14-year-old — all had smartphones. We lurked with them in corners, half-present, half-removed, half-aware of how rude it probably was. She watched us with a kind of charmed love, the glance that comes from some evolutionary reservoir, the one that only grandparents can go skinny-dipping in. Her eyes shook a little bit and her mouth rediscovered the wrinkles that framed it long ago.

“Who are you talking to?” she asked in her clipped, guttural accent. No matter what the answer was, it wasn’t her.


She helped raised me, this woman. She lived with us in Connecticut, in the cul-de-sac where she parked her white 1994 Honda Civic, in the house where we tried to send that email. She picked us up from school, she drove us to practice, she made sure there was an after-school snack every day. “You’re a growing boy,” she’d urge without any irony. (Jewish grandmothers aren’t Jewish grandmothers unless they don’t realize they’re being Jewish grandmothers.)

She had her own life, too, of course. There was Bobbi, and Shirley, and whoever else ambled in to a restaurant for tea in the middle of the day. She was a woman about town, visiting the knitting shop, the Trellis Diner, the synagogue. So she was active — not a skydiving granny or anything, but still active. She was a woman who every now and then wanted to live outside of herself.

But she never did that living online. She was surrounded by technology in our house — she’d watch me play video games for hours — but she never partook herself. She looked over our shoulders as we used a laptop, she used our cellphones without actually dialing the number herself, and she pronounced Internet with hard t's as though it were something as foreign as her accent. It was a world that she only glimpsed through a telescope, curious to look but never expecting to get there herself.


On the day most of her family left, she picked up an iPad. “Do you think I’d like this?” she asked. And I said yes, yes she might.

She held it above her lap. It quivered in her knotty, wrinkled hands. Is there anything more alien to a young person than an old person’s hand? Its veins and joints are all visible. Its thin skin droops, scuffed by burns, pets, diapers, steering wheels, doorknobs, and whatever else has brushed by in 80-plus years. Its muscles have withered, wizened down to their most essential bits. Bracelets — the same bracelets that have been on since as far back as you can remember, and even further — sag off its thin wrist. It’s still a hand, but it’s also clearly something else. An artifact, maybe.

She used those hands to put the iPad down on her knees and used one of those craggy fingers — nails impeccably painted orangeish-red — to make the thing work. She ran it along the bottom of the screen and began anew.


She is always cold now, my grandmother. She says it cuts through to her bones. She was sick over Thanksgiving, and was too nervous about “catching a cold on top of a cold” to leave the house. Did she want to take a walk to the beach? Too windy. Was the air conditioning too high? Of course. Did she want to step out on the porch with me? She did, for a minute, and that was enough. (And after I come back in, make sure the door is locked, okay?)

Manufactured hysteria over death panels and the like means that this country talks a lot about how strange it is for kids to start taking care of their parents when they get old enough. How the cared-for must now become the caretakers. But watching a grandparent grow old — rather, grow older — is a little different. My grandmother never tossed a Frisbee with me, never advised me about my first girlfriend, never went out to a bar with me after I turned 21. (Though there was that one episode with the Brandy Alexanders at Cousin Scott’s wedding. “Uch! I never!” she now denies.) None of that was part of our relationship before, so none of that could be mourned for now. Our dynamic — being content in each other’s company — wasn’t changing, so it wasn’t in danger of being lost.

But she was losing her own. This grandmother who was afraid of what might happen if she tried something new, this was a different grandmother than I grew up with. I think I’ve spent more hours with her than with anyone else in my life, and this is not the memory of her that I tote around with me.

So it’s not that she’s getting old — to me, she was always old. It’s that her scope of possibility isn’t as large as it once was. Her aperture has narrowed.


Her fingers were not too shaky to type on the iPad. Without the spring-loaded keys of a regular keyboard she could press down fully on the iPad’s glass screen until she was ready for the next letter. Within minutes she wanted one of her own. And so we got her one of her own.

“It’s beautiful” she said when she opened it. Moments later, she was texting, her first ever. “Chad hi thanks for helping me please write every thing down for me.” A day later, after I showed her FaceTime, downloaded apps (Epicurious, the Weather Channel, Solitaire, WordSearch, and Talking Tom the Cat — the woman cannot get enough of Talking Tom the Cat), and tried, for the fourth time, to explain the difference between email and text messages, she begged again for me to give her a manual to take back to Holland. “You have to write down what I do with the camera that we see each other.”

The fear of forgetting how to use this new thing was overwhelming. It had taken a decade to get there, but now that she had this technology, she never wanted to lose it. After she made her first videochat call, she closed her eyes and brought her hands to her face. She was overwhelmed with what was finally within reach. “Already I don’t know how to live without it,” she said on her third day with it. I started to look into those Korean Internet rehab centers you always hear about.

She started taking the iPad to bed with her to play Solitaire. It was the same bed she had spent the week in and out of; nursing that cold so another one couldn’t metastasize on top of it. But now the context was different. Now the cold was being crowded out by something new: the glow of a screen.


Eventually she thought to finish what she had started. She asked if she could email Bobbi. Somehow she still remembered the email address. Now she finally had the means.

But then when she sat down with the iPad to do it, she hesitated. “I don’t know what to write right now,” she said. And so instead we lingered on the couch for a little while longer. Grandmother and grandson, together with our technology.

Chadwick Matlin is a senior editor at Reuters. He calls his grandmother Nana.

70 Comments / Post A Comment


This is beautiful--thanks for sharing.




@JessicaLovejoy “You have to write down what I do with the camera that we see each other.” AHHH, SOMETHING IN MY EYE


@itmakesmewonder Ahhh. Yes, that would be about the time I burst into tears... er... I mean, the sprinkler system in my apartment inexplicably turned on.


@PistolPackinMama Actually... I will just own crying over this one. This is totally worth a cry-over.


@JessicaLovejoy Agreed but also, I'm using "it's raining on my face" all the time now.


@JessicaLovejoy And here I am reading it on break on a Monday morning at work when there is NO WAY I HAVE THE MENTAL WHEREWITHAL TO PULL MYSELF TOGETHER!


"After she made her first videochat call, she closed her eyes and brought her hands to her face. She was overwhelmed with what was finally within reach."

This is tech keeping one of its finest promises.

Tragically Ludicrous

@wharrgarbl Seriously. I just feel all shivery.


@wharrgarbl Yes. That was part that stuck in my throat.


@wharrgarbl Yes. Just yes. By far the best part of our Christmas this year was my mom and dad sitting together on the couch with his new iPad, video chatting with their first grandchild. Even better is my friend in Afghanistan video chatting with his wife and son while they opened their presents together Christmas morning. I'm so verklempt.


wharrgarbl I always think about this. It's crazy enough that we have this technology in our lifetimes, but then again, we always kind of though we would. (And also, where are our flying cars?) But to our grandparents, this technology must be the craziest shit ever!

And also, yesterday I saw my nephew take a few of his first steps via Facetime, so I'm all kinds of technomotional right now anyway. This piece is fantastic.


@wharrgarbl "technomotional" !!


aww when my grandfather was in the hospital he wanted us to get him an ipad so that he could communicate more easily since he was having trouble speaking ... but it was too heavy for him to hold and type on properly. We never managed to figure out a good enough solution.

On the other hand, we do have my grandmother texting now! Grandmas who text - so awesome.

Roxanne Rholes

@redheadedandcrazy Is there maybe a stand that could go over his lap and hold it? I know someone who had crazy back surgery and they set one up for her laptop.


@Roxanne Rholes unfortunately he passed away last year, but we did try to make a couple of stands and things that might help. he was very very old and very very weak by that point so it was pretty much a big shot in the dark. but at least we tried!

Roxanne Rholes

@Roxanne Rholes I bet he really appreciated the efforts. That's super sweet of you!


@redheadedandcrazy The iPad is a little heavy for my grandma too, but she LOVES her Nook Color


@redheadedandcrazy Maybe something of the large bean-bag variety, wide enough to balance on a person's chest. (For others reading this) And I'm sorry for your loss.

I'm excited for the possibility of the iPad to link the elderly with the very young; the storytellers with the group most aware of their need to hear stories.


God, I miss my grandmother.


@Argyle Me too! She would have freakin' loved Tom the Talking Cat.


@Argyle Man, me too.


My eyes are leaking a little. It's clearly dusty in my office.

Roxanne Rholes

My eyes! They are leaking!




Misty, misty eyes. Wonderful piece.

Alexandra Martell

[Looks up the price of iPads for her own Nana]


the Hairpin always has good writing, but this one really got me. So beautiful, and just the right mixture of poignant and humorous. Perfect.




Thank you, this was beautiful.

Note to self: Call Grandma when you get home from work.


This is so charming. I wish my own grandmother was as inquisitive and had as much spunk as your Nana.

The Best Time I Taught My Grandmother How to Facetime?


Well. I'll be in the bathroom crying all day, if anyone needs me. Forward my calls.


@kayjay I love you. Also, can I slip your iPad under the door?


She watched us with a kind of charmed love, the glance that comes from some evolutionary reservoir, the one that only grandparents can go skinny-dipping in.

Ahhhh sooo goood.


Excellent piece!


Really, really lovely story.

I'm only in my 40s, look 10 years younger, and am entirely comfortable with technology - but the iPad changed my life in similar ways. I've had severe tremors for the last 4 years and it's definitely the best keyboard for me (I still miss enough keys to be frustrating, but probably 80% fewer); also, I'd given up reading because I couldn't hold books steady enough, but I can use Kindle and eBooks on the iPad with very little trouble. Needless to say, I'm a big fan.

Kristen Zemeitus@facebook

I just got all misty -- this is amazing. Makes me wish I still had living grandparents.


I think this is one of the best things I've ever read on the Internet.


I tried so hard to get my grandparents computer-friendly before they both passed away! It was very frustrating (but now they are some of my favorite memories). This is really a wonderful story of success!


Tears. Especially poignant since we recently got an iPad for my young-ish, hip-ish, Betty Draper grandmother who still works in real estate. When I Face Timed her from France for the first time she started to cry, she couldn't get over it!! She loves technology: her kitchen gadgets, her computer, her wifi (which she actually unplugs and turns off every time after using the computer!), and now her iPad.

Sorry I got sidetracked. My grandmother is awesome.


@descie unplugging wifi = adorable. I had this actual exchange with my mom while visiting last year:

Me (holding laptop): Mom, do you guys have wifi?

Mom: No. We can get it. What is it? Is it at the Apple store?


@Bebe Oh god, my parents keep the 16-character password on their wifi in their house in the middle of nowhere, JUST IN CASE someone DRIVING BY decides to park for a while and steal their wifi.


@descie I unplug my wifi when I'm done on the computer, but I am distinctly not adorable. With the exception of the fridge and the stove, I don't leave anything plugged in when it's not in use.

Benny and Martha@twitter



No, nothing's wrong, I'm not crying, it's just allergies. Yeah, allergies. The kind that make me cry into my hands at work.


This was so lovely. Thank you for sharing.

Oh, squiggles

Why, why is it so dusty in here all of a sudden...it's very dusty, yeah. Kind of making my eyes water...


Wonderful. Crying at work.
We got my grandma a kindle this year because she can't read books anymore, and you can magnify things on ereaders. We gave it to her pre-loaded with the bible and romance novels!
So so sweet.

screwball cate

Oh man. I haven't read this but I had a feeling it would be a tearjerker and now I'm skimming the comments and omg it is gonna make me cry, isn't it? My grampa just got on facebook and it is so uber sweet and adorable and makes me miss him way too much.


This piece is so tenderly written. The first two paragraphs had me welling up, thinking about how our grandparents are simultaneously wiser than we are and also more in need of our protection.


And now I'm crying on the thank you note I'm writing to my Oma. Awesome.


Reminds me of when I was a kid, growing up in my grandma's house, and I had to wait for her to finish playing Solitaire on the family PC before I could chat with friends on AIM. She would have totally loved an iPad if she were still around. Tears!


Aww. My parents Facetimed me from across the country before the holidays (first time none of us were able to spend it together) and my mom totally cried when it worked. It was sweet, even with my boyfriend running around the background warbling "Welcome to the world of tomorrow! We're living in the future!"


This is just beautiful and it reminded me of my grandpa. I taught him how to use the internet, his cellphone, my camera, the dvd player. He loved technology and was always so eager to learn new things, bless him.

(It's raining on my face a little bit, too.)


Gah, this was beautiful. I miss my grandparents. My Pop-Pop would have loved Facetime or even Skype. Gotta go. I have this really thick lump in my throat...

happy go lucky scamp

this is beautiful...
and makes me feel like a horrible person for not calling my grandparents and great grandparent more often...



@sparkles I know, I really need to call my grandma more. Augh I'm a terrible granddaughter.


This reminds me of how my grandpa was quite savvy with a (very early, we're talking not-brand-newmid-late 90s) computer. He was almost completely blind, but voice-interactive software allowed him to read and write, still. He was a journalist, so it made a world of difference to him--as far as I could understand, as I was quite young. I wish I'd had the chance to know him better.

I am Kirok!

I registered after months of lurking just to say this:

I miss my bubbe.


I love this so much. Particularly so as my husband and I spent Christmas break teaching my grandma how to use her DVD player... last night on the phone she told me she was watching one of her new DVDs! All on her own!! I was so proud.

My other grandma is nearly 90 and has been skyping with us for 5 years now. I call her every night and it makes me so, so happy.

Anywhoo, awesome story Mr. Matlin. Splendidly well written.


i loved this. like everyone else, I miss my grandmother that raised me too. thanks for making me cry. (I mean it, really sincerely)

Jessica Arena@facebook

What a lovely story. You are a beautiful writer.


What? I'm not even crying at work over these two sentiments, so quitaskingalreadygod:

“Who are you talking to?” she asked in her clipped, guttural accent. No matter what the answer was, it wasn’t her.


On the day most of her family left, she picked up an iPad. “Do you think I’d like this?” she asked. And I said yes, yes she might.


I am so glad I read this. I'll be sure to get mom that smartphone so she can text my son. She'll love that, and so will he. Wonderful piece!


thank you thank you thank you <3 beautiful piece!!!!!!!


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