The Answer Machine

By Patsy Phillips Whitacre

"Spell out what it is you want to know right here," my grandmother's hard-worn, gnarled finger indicated the search entry line on the computer screen, then dropped carefully to the enter key. "Then press this button and it will tell you anything you want to know. It's an 'answer machine'."

"Thanks, Gran." I answered her confident smile with a matching smile and a suggestion. "I'd really like to find out more about where you used to live when you were a girl." The familiar explanation and suggestion formed a comfortable ritual for us both.

As I clicked through links to bring the familiar webpages to the screen, we chatted about her home, her childhood, her friends, her memories. Precious time for us since her memories disappear almost daily, devoured by the first stages of Alzheimer's Disease.

In her ninety-four years Gran has lived through world wars, the moon landing, depressions, recessions, and boom times. Married to a coal miner in the rugged West Virginia Mountains, she bore eight children and buried three of them. When my grandfather lost his arm in a mining accident, they both struggled to keep food on the table, clothing patched, and their children in school. After my grandfather's accidental death, she began her first formal employment - at the age of sixty-two. She's met changes and challenges without qualm as society has passed through agricultural times, the industrial era, and the information age. Her tools for living? Hard work, deep faith, and her beloved bible.

Electronic innovations? No problem. Gran can flip a remote with skill equal to any husband I know. However, when her health began failing, my uncle moved to her home to help and brought his computer. The computer baffled her.

"It's your Uncle Don's TV. Don't work too good, though." Her initial explanation to me led my uncle to have several sessions with her, explaining about the Internet and the World Wide Web. With great patience, he explained how he could contact companies and place bids for jobs, order equipment, and hire employees. Gran said she understood it now - it was a TV used for his work.

More explanations by my uncle led to more confusion for grandmother. Her fascination with "Don's work TV" amused the extended family as we traded her comments about the computer. She truly enjoyed it when a family member would pull up the hometown newspaper and she could read news of local events and see photos of old familiar places. That added a new dimension for her, but the coup de gras came in the form of instant messaging.

As soon as the message box would pop-up, Gran did, too. Scooting a chair so she could see the screen, she would smile, point, and dispense advice and reprimands as her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren visited with her electronically. Delighted, Gran's fondness and respect for the computer grew daily and she renamed it "the answer machine."

The instant message and hometown newspaper sessions decreased with the onset of Alzheimer's. Our sessions at the computer have become irregular, but grandmother's attention to her bible has not. Read daily and always at hand, her bible, like her favorite sweater and her purse, are touchstones of reality for her.

After Gran and I finished our last computer session, I continued my on-line research until I felt her light touch on my shoulder. Standing by my chair, wearing her favorite sweater, she held her bible in her hand. Her eyes beaming, gaze intent, she gave me one of her family famous smiles and tapped her two forefingers on her bible.
"My 'answer machine'."


Gran does not recognize me now when I visit, but her bible is still her touchstone. I learned many lessons from her - hard work, perseverance, humor, loyalty, faith, kindness. But I seldom sit down at my computer without a smile, remembering Gran's bible, the ultimate "answer machine."

Copyrighted by Patsy Phillips Whitacre

[Note her grandmother is now 94 years old]

McDowell County