Mom learns to send e-mail

These are such troubling times that whenever some ordinary thing to relish occurs, I welcome it. Compared to the stale contentiousness of politics, celebration seems to lighten the air until I see that life is nothing. Nothing, that is, but a gift. Especially in the inconsolable haze of Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq and the "us against them" feel to the world all round.

Today I celebrate this: my mother has sent her first e-mail.

After threatening to store the computer I bought for her in the garage, which is her way of putting it down, she finally called that "nice young man" who works at Best Buy. His team of computer wizards is called The Geek Squad, and my mother thinks it's because he's unmarried. I love the fact that a 25-year-old is patient enough to sit with my 79-year-old mom until she learns to trust the memory bank that, at first, she thought money could be deposited into (directly into) after he suggested she manage her checking account online.

Her first e-mail said only: "Can you read this?" - arriving seven times because, I suspect, she approached the send button much like she does cooking: Why make a saucepan of soup when you can make enough to feed the neighbors, the bridge club and even the mailman?

To commemorate this Herculean occasion in our lives, she and I vow to write each other every day. We are sharing a new stage of our mother-daughter work-in-progress. Now that we've learned not to come to our conversations laden with bags of family history, but only to pluck from the present, the tension between us is gone. This, only after we tried and failed to understand some of our past mistakes with frantic phone calls and countless self-examinings. None of which ever worked. So, we decided, that is exactly how important they needed to be.

It wasn't easy, though. We had to tug, push, pull and poke our way through old habits, and it seemed to take forever. We'd hobble two steps forward, then come tumbling back, neither willing to dilate, to open into the other. At one point I remember thinking that it's a miracle one of us hasn't beheaded the other by now. Geez, I thought, sanctimoniously, what is her problem?

But then my friend lost her mother, and then another friend lost hers, and guilt arrived. I felt a sudden need to move beyond our silly struggles. The hardest part was letting go of who I thought I was and seeing myself clearly through the magnifier of my mother's eyes. From there our patience seemed to go from withered to fertile in the span of a day.

This week, our e-mails naturally veer toward the one big thing we have in common: how to handle our frizzy Italian hair. "You have to get a really tight hat, she writes, "and pull it down over your head. A day of that, and your hair is smooth as a blonde's." Then she sums our problem up in a few simple words: "Or put a nylon stocking over your head when you sleep." My mother has the same dread of blow dryers she once reserved for computers.

I'm not sure why we bemoan the fact that few people write letters anymore. I, for one, think e-mails are better. I can honestly tell you I have never known my mother better through words than now. Sometimes her email is nothing but a matter-of-fact itinerary of her day; other times, a bolt of connection shoots between us, so intimate we're as one. Because as with any good writing, details alone are never enough. And that's why I cherish her latest e-mail, a tiny glimpse into a huge fear: "You know," she writes, "I've never really known what I want to be when I grow up."

I don't think, pen to paper, this admission would have come to me. The task of letter, envelope and finding a stamp may have been foreseen as too much an effort, the insight never shared. The immediacy of e-mail has become the slow deliberation of us.

My mother and I live across the country from each other. Yet, thanks to a technology I never plan on comprehending, I'm sure we'll run into each other again tomorrow, right over there by the inbox, on a screen that is the size of a thing that should not be able to hold so much.

Sanelli's latest book is "Craving Water." Her commentaries are periodically heard on Weekend Edition & Weekend America, NPR; and weekly on KSER-FM.

[[In-content Ad]]