Ever since I was a little girl, my grandmother swore that she’d never go online.
My grandmother, who I call “Mamaw,” is the only mother I’ve 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 corny jokes. And I always compliment her hair.
Whenever I asked Mamaw if she’d learn to use a computer, she always responded: “Why would I need to use the Internet? I’ve got everything and everyone I need right here, at home.”
COVID-19 changed those needs. My sister, who lives close by, could no longer visit her. And I was stuck in a different state, worrying about Mamaw. Although she’s a strong woman, she still falls into the “high-risk” category for COVID-19.
And I knew the loneliness of quarantine was impacting my family’s health. Researchers have found that social belongingness is essential to our mental health. Without this human connection, many people, especially the elderly, are suffering from isolation and depression during this pandemic. Suddenly, like countless others, my grandmother could no longer enjoy her normal outlets for belongingness: watching her great-grandchildren, going to church or visiting her friends.
My three-year-old niece was the one who proposed using Facebook Messenger to talk to Mamaw. If there’s one unbreakable law in our world, it’s that when a great-grandchild wants something, a great-grandmother will provide.
Finally, 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 for over a month, and she’d cross any mountain or download any app to keep our family together.
In April, for the first time in a year, I was about to see my hard-of-hearing grandmother. We’d spoken on the phone nearly every weekend, but our spotty connection made it difficult for her to understand me. Now, she was going to 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 that Mamaw was pushing herself far outside her comfort zone to virtually connect.
New technologies can separate the older generation from younger folks. But my grandmother and many elders have adapted to numerous (inter)national disasters and technological changes in their lifetime. From the rise of television and the invention of the cell phone to disposable menstrual products, technologies have drastically changed the way my grandmother interacts with the world. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when Mamaw began to use video chat. Innovation and plasticity were in her upbringing, as much as they are in mine.
I called her on Facebook Messenger and wondered if she’d answer. Then, suddenly, I saw her face. Her eyebrows scrunched together as she peered at her screen.
“Can … can you hear me?” I asked.
“Yes. Well, not really,” she said. “I can read your lips. I know what you’re saying.” My room was a mess, but I walked her through a virtual tour of my apartment.
“You look as beautiful as ever,” I told her, and she rolled her eyes. Her camera could have been upside down and her sound muted, but I wouldn’t have cared. It felt like we were finally together again.
But I could tell Mamaw felt vulnerable. When she accidentally hung up a call or our video chat lagged, she’d say, “It’s already hard for me to hear people. Sometimes people treat me like I’m stupid when I can’t hear them, and….”
She didn’t say it, but I could guess what might have come next — “Learning to video chat makes me feel stupid, too.”
Even though my grandmother didn’t know it at the time, I could empathize. I’d kept my tinnitus diagnosis to myself until the point where I could not understand masked grocery store workers, because I couldn’t read their lips. I felt like people thought I was stupid when I had to ask them to repeat themselves or when I misheard them.
Video chat bridged the hearing impairments and physical distance between me and my grandmother. When she saw me on her tablet, Mamaw could read my lips. If I needed to, I could read hers, too. Our communication wasn’t always perfect. Sometimes the video lagged or froze, and we had to start up our conversation where we’d left off. But for the first time in a long time, we had a starting place.
The vulnerability of learning new technologies opened a safe space for us to trust each other. Mamaw couldn’t hide her hearing loss. And she wasn’t hiding her discomfort with the digital platform. It seemed unfair that I was hiding something about myself from her, and I finally opened up about my own hearing loss.
As my grandmother struggled and succeeded in using video chat, we found new respect for one another. I realized that Mamaw’s desire to learn this skill was an expression of love — an expression that I should extend to her, too.
During our chats, she kept her tablet on the kitchen counter. I could see the familiar apple-patterned trim on the walls. My family loves apples, and creating an apple recipe is a rite of passage for Brooks women. Looking into her kitchen, I recognized my grandmother’s recipes and asked her to teach me how to make her peanut butter chocolate chip cookies or fried apple pies. She felt more connected to the technologies I used every day, and I reconnected with my family heritage and oral history.
Our family’s love provides consistent shelter during social uncertainty, although we must find new ways to express that love. Video chat made us feel like we belonged in one another’s lives. And this belongingness was a tether for our family’s mental wellness during quarantine.
Our story is one of thousands. People of all ages are using FaceTime, Messenger and other apps to socialize from the safety of their homes. Tech companies are stepping up to support elders as they learn to use social media to keep in touch with loved ones. Families are video chatting to teach grandparents digital skills or teach grandchildren how to bake sourdough.
So, I’m left wondering: where does my grandmother’s and my digital relationship go from here? Since we have to live apart for the foreseeable future, we can both continue to adapt. We can question if there are better solutions to communicate with our hearing impairments.
In the meantime, the silence doesn’t ring so loudly when we can see one another smiling from our screens.
Laken Brooks is a PhD student at the University of Florida where she studies disability, gender and digital humanities. When she’s not studying and teaching, she is a freelance writer for CNN, Inside Higher Ed, Good Housekeeping and other national publications.