Family faces digital divide

True Tales From Everyday Living

Real Life

September 10, 2006|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Reporter

I don't even remember when I bought my mother her cell phone for Christmas, but I do know it's been so long that when it broke a few years ago, the company couldn't repair it because the parts weren't available anymore.

The cell phone representative was quite startled when she learned the make and model -- a virtual antique -- and quickly sent an upgrade.

Trouble is, my mother rarely turns it on.

It hardly mattered until recently, when I had to reach them right away.

My mother's uncle had died in upstate New York. My parents were nowhere to be found. I didn't even know they had left their home in southern New Hampshire until a cousin called to tell me about the death and to ask whether I knew how to reach them.

I had their cell number.

Still, I wasn't sure of the urgency. Would my mother want to rush to the funeral? The death was not unexpected; her uncle was elderly, but he had been my grandmother's last surviving sibling.

I dialed.

"The person you have called is unavailable right now," an operator said. "Please try again later."

Maybe I was having the moment all adult children go through at one time or another. The roles of parent and child reversed.

It was now the son trying to find the missing parents. It was the parents who didn't tell the son where they were going, or what time they'd be home, leaving no contact information and no working telephone number.

My cousin told me they had gone to Maine.

I remember my mother talking about going to some place featured in The New York Times -- a lobster shack called Red's Eats.

I found the article; it had been written out of Boothbay Harbor, north of Portland.

I Googled the chamber of commerce and found a list of hotels. I began calling.

They weren't registered at the Flagship Inn.

I tried Fisherman's Wharf next.

They were there! Well, not really. They had registered but had not yet checked in, I was told. It was Aug. 15. They were due to arrive Aug. 26.

Now I was really confused. (I later learned my parents had stayed there years ago, and their names were still in the computer. The receptionist had misread the dates.)

I left a message on my parent's home answering machine, knowing they didn't know how to (or even that they could) check it from outside the house. I asked a neighbor whether they had left any instructions. Nothing.

My parents live in a small town named Bow. Small enough so that if you go on vacation and fill out a form, an officer will swing by your empty house to make sure everything is OK. Once, an officer found that my parents had left a sliding back door wide open. The officer checked the house, locked the door and left a nice note on the kitchen table.

But this time, the town police had no record of my parents leaving town.

My parents are healthy. They are in their 70s. My mother, Mary Ann, is a retired nurse; my father, Max, a retired aerospace engineer. They travel the world, have lived overseas and drive hundreds of miles at a time. This is the communication age, where people carry not one but sometimes two cell phones, iPods, BlackBerrys and pagers. It's hard to believe that anybody could be out of reach.

I try to keep my parents up to date. One Christmas many years ago, tired of the rotary dial with which they seemed quite satisfied, I bought them their first touch-tone. It was cordless. This past holiday, I bought them XM Satellite Radio. Now they fight over music in the car; my father likes jazz, my mother prefers classical. They compromise on the hits of the 1940s.

These gadgets are supposed to make our lives easier or more easily enjoyable. But for whom? I was anxious that I couldn't immediately reach my parents, but I know I hate to be disturbed when I'm off. But I was frustrated. I had become a prisoner of my own gift.

A new tip led me north of Boothbay, to New Harbor, an even smaller fishing village in a rocky cove overlooking Casco Bay and bobbing lobster boats -- which another aunt thought my mother had once mentioned.

I found them at the Gosnold Arms.

Of course, there are no phones in the rooms. The man at the desk had to trudge upstairs, knock on their door and have them call me back from an office. By that point, I was in a meeting, and I missed two frantic calls.

When we finally connected, I asked my mother about her cell phone.

"You know, you get bad reception out here," she said.

I pressed: "Is your phone on?"

"No," she replied.

To listen to podcasts of Real Life essays, go to

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.