Sincerely, Mom

Friday, April 30, 1999

Notice how we are perpetually surprised at Time. (“How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up and married! I can hardly believe it!”) In heaven’s name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal.

—C. S. Lewis

Our five-year-old, Pedro, has reached the stage at which children repeat phrases they only imperfectly understand. The other day I found him intently studying an insect. “Look, Daddy, a dumb beetle!”

It turned out he had been watching a program on African animals. “Dumb beetle” was the way he had heard “dung beetle.”

Most of Pedro’s mistakes are funny—he calls his potatoes “smashed,” and he’s convinced his favorite Star Wars character is named “Dark Raider.” But a couple of weeks ago, he used a phrase that hurt. Showing me how quickly he could dash across the living room, he sang out, “Look, Daddy! Faster than the speed of life!”

Faster than the speed of life.

Although the passage of time certainly has its benefits—I wouldn’t want to change diapers forever—it has begun doing things to me that are distinctly unpleasant. I’m alarmed to discover how gray I’ve become. At a restaurant the other day, the kid at the cash register asked in all innocence whether I’d like the fifty-five-and-over discount.

Wasn’t technology supposed to help with this? Now that I’m middle-aged (forty-one, not fifty-five, thank you), I don’t want any more cell phones, beepers, palm-held personal assistants, or other “timesaving” high-tech devices. They only make time move faster. I want technology that makes time stand still.

Oddly, just such a technology exists. It was my mother, until recently one of the most untechnological people I know, who brought it to my attention.

Last year Mom announced that she wanted to buy herself a computer. I tried to talk her out of it. She was eighty, and during her Christmas visit, I sat next to her as she attempted to use my computer. The icons confused her. She typed slowly (her brief career as a secretary ended almost five decades ago). She found even the most basic terminology difficult.

“A floppy disk? Why is it called ‘floppy’? It looks rigid to me,” she asked.

“Because the first disks, in use a dozen years ago, really were floppy,” I replied.

“Oh,” she answered. She smiled sweetly, as if indulging me.

She bought a computer anyway. A member of her church gave her lessons. (The high-tech age has produced a new work of corporal mercy—teaching computers to the elderly—to go along with feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.) It took less than a month for Mom to master e-mail so completely that she turned into a spammer; one morning she sent me five e-mails before I told her to knock it off.

For years my mother had been planning to write her memoirs. She had put together a fat file of notes and newspaper clippings, but she had never started. Now I suggested that, instead of writing a book, she might tell her story by e-mail. I advised her to keep it simple, sending two or three e-mails a week to our seven-year-old daughter, Edita.

Would you like to hear about when I was born? October 27, 1916, I came into the world. The doctor drove his horse and buggy the ten miles from the little town of Montrose, Pennsylvania, where he lived, to the hamlet of Forest Lake, where our farm was. (When my sister, Ethel, was born, it was January and there was so much snow the doctor couldn’t get there. My father had to ask a neighbor how to cut the cord that connects the baby to her mother.)

Soon Edita and I were reading about the one-room schoolhouse, about the woodstove on which her mother cooked, about the icebox that her father kept stocked with blocks of ice from the pond near his water-powered sawmill, and about the plumbing—water was piped from a spring downhill to the farmhouse, where it ran into the kitchen sink twenty-four hours a day, and the outhouse (“It was mighty snowy and cold to get there in the winter!!”).

For our daughter, the fascination lies in reading about the animals—the collie, Drummie, who rounded up the cows every evening and brought them back to the barn, and the horses, Roxy, Major, and Jewel.

Roxy and Major were huge workhorses. Roxy, a female, was quite cross and I didn’t dare go near her. She was likely to bite or kick. Major was a male, a handsome horse, deep black with white around the feet and down the middle of his face. He was happy natured and never would bite or kick. They did look beautiful when hitched up together.

Jewel was a pony. She was black and white, much the same coloring as Major. My sister and I would put a saddle on her. I loved riding off into the country on Jewel. In the summer she also pulled a wagon for us.

For me the fascination lies elsewhere. My mother’s e-mails present an America that no longer exists. The hardness of life comes through. Mom was the only member of her school to go on to high school. (“I had to leave home to room in Montrose, where the high school was located, because Montrose was ten miles away and too far to drive every day.”) Although her father owned six farms, none of his tenants could pay their rent.

One farmer gave us a turkey every year for Thanksgiving, and that was his rent. There was another who had a BIG family but wasn’t a very successful farmer. I don’t think he ever paid us any rent, and sometimes in the middle of the night my mother would go to his farm to help his wife, who was having another baby.

The sense of faith is palpable. School days began with a Bible verse and the Lord’s Prayer. In high school, students wrote religious inscriptions in each other’s “autograph books.” One inscription read

A place for me in your album,
A place for me in your heart,
A place for us in Heaven,
Where true friends never part.

Each story my mother tells represents a victory over time, a fragment of the old world she has snatched from oblivion to give to her grandchildren. Yet her e-mails convey a still more decisive victory. It lies not in what she writes but in her voice.

Mom is now eighty-two. She uses a cane indoors and a walker outdoors. On good days, she paints—she’s working on portraits of our children—but she has to tuck her walker under her easel for support. On bad days, she sits in her easy chair. Her age presents itself in the quavery handwriting in her letters, the phrases she misses when we speak over the telephone. The exception is her e-mails. The voice they convey is the voice that I knew as a child. Her sense of humor, her pleasure in telling a story, her eye for detail and color—all are present, unmediated by old age. When I read my mother’s e-mails, time stands still.

Or, rather, my mother stands outside time. It is Aristotle’s distinction between “accidents” and “substance.” Accidents are the inessential aspects of an entity, substance is its essence. In humans, accidents include eye color, hair color, height, weight, and age. Substance is the voice in Mom’s e-mails. E-mail—prosaic e-mail—has permitted me to glimpse that which, in C. S. Lewis’s words, is “not temporal.”

For now my mother’s e-mails continue to arrive faster, so to speak, than the speed of life. Even when they cease, I will know that despite the accidents of old age—despite the accident of death itself—time never touched her.