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15 – I am not a Luddite

My mother is not a Luddite, as she will inform you in no uncertain terms. However, she is occasionally technically challenged, which made it particularly entertaining when she became the go-to tech support for her neighbors in the independent living apartment complex.

My parents spent a decade in Haiti, running an orphanage for their church. (Yes, I turned out a little differently.) Every six months they returned to the States to raise funds for the orphanage, but while they were in Haiti we had to contact them by email. Given that the Internet connection was via satellite and the electric supply was unreliable, communicating back and forth could be challenging. This did not make my mother love technology.

Things didn’t improve when my parents finally moved back to the U.S. Mom thought the computer was a pain in the neck and left it at the back of a closet where it bred generations of dust bunnies. She would only use a land line or, if absolutely necessary, the kind of mobile that required a constant flow of purchased minutes – preferably a flip phone. It would never occur to her to wonder whether sending a text was even an option. She blew raspberries at the very mention of a smart phone, which was actually kind of funny, but not particularly helpful. She wanted no part of complicated communications technology.

Then my marvelous spouse and I upgraded our cell phones and decided to keep my old one on our plan and give it to my parents. It would save them some money and give them Internet access in their apartment so mom wouldn’t have to trek downstairs to the front lobby with smart tablet in hand (don’t be fooled, it was a gift) every time she needed to download an audio book for dad or, (on the occasional day when hell got a little frosty) check for an email. Considering that she only had to make that trek because she had refused to have wifi installed in the apartment, we assumed that getting her to agree to this technological upgrade might take some finessing.

I called her from the store, where we had already spent approximately 500 years trying to get through the purgatorial process of updating to new phones, and hoped for the best.

“Blah, blah … so we’ll have an extra phone. Is there any chance at all you’d like to have my old one?” I was wincing as I said it, waiting for her to make rude noises in my ear. Instead there was a brief silence.

“What will it cost?” Mom got right to crux of the matter.

“It won’t cost you anything.”

“Will it cost you anything?”

“Well technically, no. It’s still on our plan because-”


There was another pause as I quickly tried to recalibrate my understanding of life, the universe, and everything.

“Um… What?”

“Yes. Absolutely. I’ll take your old phone.”

“You hate technology! Who are you and what have you done with my mother?” Scenes from Invasion of the Body Snatchers were dancing through my head.

“I’m not a Luddite,” she informed me with a sniff. “They’re just so expensive. Oh, and you’ll have to show me how to use it.”

Let’s just say I did not have a full and informed understanding of what I was getting myself into. It’s easy to forget just how many things a person needs to learn if they’ve never used a smartphone and aren’t particularly computer savvy.

I spent the next two visits with my parents downloading the few apps mom might need, loading her contacts and teaching her the basics.

The first lesson was the difference between tapping (preferably with the pad of the finger to ensure good capacitive contact) and stabbing with increasing speed and irritation when it failed to work the first time, as though trying to kill the inanimate object.

The second lesson was the difference between swiping and tapping, and why the difference matters.

The third lesson was never to download an app without calling me first to make sure the app isn’t actually malware that the antivirus software installed on the phone will automatically block while freezing everything else until someone with more digital savvy can be found to save the poor soul who tried to download an app called Please Destroy My Phone (I may be exaggerating here).

There were lessons on how to use facial recognition, which delighted her beyond measure when she could get it to work. (”Mom, it’s not a retina scan. You have to move it away from your face so it can see you. Look at the camera. And stop talking.”)

How to use fingerprint recognition. (”Okay mom, put your index finger on the sensor. No, that’s the camera. No, that’s the flashlight. No, that’s… here, this one.”)

How to use the PIN when you can’t get facial or fingerprint recognition to work. (”Don’t worry, I swear at the phone too when that happens.”)

How to use the earphones. (”Okay, plug the earphone adapter into the jack. It’s the little hole at the bottom. No, that’s… actually, I don’t know what that is. Plug it into the other one.”)

How to make a phone call.

How to use contacts to find the phone number you need when you can’t find your address book, which is so old and dog-eared it keeps getting lost in a pile of magazines.

How to get online.

How to do an online search.

The importance of typing in search terms accurately and watching for auto-correct problems so that your search for nail polish doesn’t turn into a search for anal polish.

How to delete your search history.

How to turn on the hot spot and connect the smart tablet.

How to charge the phone.

How to tell when the battery is low so that the phone can be plugged in to charge before it turns itself off when you’re right in the middle of doing an online search.

How to turn the phone back on.

How to restart and reboot the whole damn thing when all else fails.

How to check email.

How to delete email.

How to retrieve the email you deleted by accident when you meant to delete that other email.

How to use the banking app to check your account balance and deposit checks with your phone.

Given all that was about to happen, that last one turned out to be a particularly useful lesson, because it was then that Covid shut everything down and I couldn’t visit my parents anymore. In fact, the ability to use a banking app may be the origin of mom’s reputation among her neighbors as a tech wiz.

Mom may have started knowing nothing about the digital world, but she learned quickly and took to it with glee. The only thing that delighted her more than unlocking her phone with facial recognition (and online banking) was discovering the joy of video calls. She learned this existed when I sent her a video call request, only to realize it was one of the lessons that had been scheduled for our next, now indefinitely delayed, visit.

For the record, I do not recommend remote instruction for teaching your mother how to answer a video call request. After 15 minutes of, “Mom, I’ll call you again. This time hit the accept video call button.” I gave up until I could show her in person.

Mom can now (most of the time except when “The blankety blank phone keeps doing strange things!”) accept a video call request. I still cannot answer the timeless mystery of how she always ends up with the camera pointed at the top of her head, but she has developed the texting skills of a teenager.


  1. Linda Barufaldi

    This is charming. When can I come over for some skill improvement lessons?

    • Amber Stephens

      As soon as I recover from teaching mom. Which, honestly, could be sometime around the next ice age.


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