"The Machine"

In the blank space in my “baby book” where mothers are asked to report their preschooler’s favorite activity, my mother wrote, about me “visits old people”. This was apparently unusual enough that it was referenced over the years, my mother noting that when she couldn’t find me, she called the homes of the four or five elderly women who lived on our block. I have snippets of memories of all of this, recalling how I loved hearing their “stories”, wondering why others didn’t want to hear the stories. One memory, however, is most vivid: Mrs. White (yes, that was really her name!).

Now Mrs. White was not my favorite. She was dour and grumpy, but always welcomed me in, and then began a circular rumination about “the machine”. “The machine” worried her immensely. Her husband had died and he was the one who had purchased “the machine” and had used “the machine”. She hated it, and it seemed to me she was really scared of “the machine”. Some days she was angry because others told her to use “the machine”. She would emphatically (and sometimes angrily) tell me that she had no intention of ever using “the machine”. I kept coming back, enduring this endless loop of laments, because I needed to find out exactly what “the machine” was.

I knew the word machine. We had a washing machine and my mother, who made clothing for us, had a sewing machine. I was pretty sure these options were not her focus. I would silently, repeatedly, return, waiting for clues. One day she provided one such clue: “the machine” was out in the garage. I had never seen her go near her garage, perhaps to avoid the horrors of “the machine”, I thought. Over several visits I finally figured it out: “the machine” was her car. I remember I was surprised, but she confirmed my discovery. She never drove it, and yet had access to transportation had she learned to drive. Her lament continued and I think I may have tapered off my visits: mystery solved. I don’t remember.

But her experience seems to me not unlike the one proposed for the elderly during this Covid crisis: use the internet. For many for whom this resource arrived late in their lives, the internet is their “machine”. Some do not have access or equipment and were unlikely to troop to their library for either. Many with access and equipment find this “machine” as intimidating and overwhelming, indeed as scary, as Mrs. White found her car. And many, who are not elderly, are dismissive or even patronizing with the elderly. Much as Mrs. White was encouraged to simply “get over” her fear, they are told there is something lacking in them when they report their sense of anxiety about the use of the resources of the internet.

The age group most clearly at risk of sickness and death during this pandemic were the elderly. They were the most isolated, often because they were already isolated when the pandemic struck. The facile and simplistic solution of the “internet” did not work for many, and the failure of the social systems to understand this was sobering. The perceived reality that “everyone” seems comfortable and pleased with “driving cars” and “Googling for information” does not mean that these are viable options for “everyone”. For some people, they are simply intimidating, “the machine”.

“If sequestered pain made a sound, the atmosphere would be humming all the time.” ~Stephen Levine