“You empty a bag of Utz’s Dark Russet potato chips onto a cookie sheet…” I began, explaining an easy appetizer recipe I’d learned from a friend. “Then you sprinkle crumbled gorgonzola cheese over …”

“Rusty potato chips?” my mother asked, turning her good ear toward me.

“No Mom, RUSSET potato chips,” I replied, enunciating the key word for clarity.

“Oh!” she said as if a light bulb had been lit, “RUSTIC potato chips. I see.”

“Mom, no, the potato chips are not rustic or rusty, they’re Utz’s Dark RUSSET potato chips.”

“The chips are dark because they’re rusty?” she asked.

Now that my mother is 77, the flow of our conversations is not as streamlined as it used to be. With her hearing impaired and her braincells preoccupied with birdwatching, joint pain, and random trivia, our mother-daughter back-and-forth dialog is often impeded by stops, restarts, wrong turns and detours.

So when I took her to our local Verizon store to update her cell phone, things did not go quite as smoothly as planned.

Ever since our military family bought smartphones after returning from a tour of duty in Germany back in 2011, my mother has been on our phone plan. This arrangement allows us to handle the technological details which she finds petrifying. My mother only uses her smartphone to make phone calls, send texts, read emails, take photos and play Boggle. Although she enjoys these modern conveniences, she sees her smartphone as a terrifyingly complex source of major anxiety. If her arthritic finger accidentally pokes an unfamiliar icon, whatever pops up on the screen elicits a dramatic gasp, “Oh NO, what’s it doing now?! How do I make it go away?!” as if her smartphone was trying to attack her.

My mother does not need the latest technology (she still uses a VCR), but as we all know, smartphones are designed to fail over time. My mother’s operating system had slowed to a crawl, and her internal memory was stuffed to the gills. “It’s still thinking,” she’d say, staring endlessly at a spinning circle on her screen. And besides, my Samsung Galaxy 7 was in need of a trade-up, too.

Tyler, a young Verizon sales agent with mild to moderate acne, took mercy on us. We perused the sleek phones on display, settling on basic Android devices that had ten times the capability of our current phones. I tried to tame my mother’s gasp-reflex as Tyler led us through the purchase process.

“What email service do you use?” Tyler asked my mother while transferring her data over to her new phone. She drew a complete blank and shot me a panicked glance.

“She uses Gmail,” I said on her behalf.

“What’s your Gmail address?” Tyler inquired, and Mom stared blankly. I answered again. Then Tyler slid the phone across the counter to Mom. “Just type your Gmail password in.”

I thought Mom might faint. “I, I … Oh no, it’s in my folder back home. Oh dear…” After three failed attempts, Tyler helped Mom reset her password.

Despite more stops, restarts, wrong turns and detours, we eventually got our new phones set up. When my mother gasped — “Will I get to keep all my photos? Will I still be able to play Boggle? Will it fall out of my pocket?” — I allayed her fears, eventually distracting her by demonstrating how a Popsocket works. “Oh, that’s so clever! I think I’ll get one for myself,” she smiled, and picked one decorated with a cartoon cat wearing sunglasses.

On the way home, Mom practiced opening her lock screen. “Tap, tap, swipe. Off. Tap, tap, swipe. Off. Tap, tap…,” she muttered to herself.

The next morning, an hour after I dropped Mom off at the train station for her trip back to Pennsylvania, my new phone rang. “Sweetie!” my mother said brightly. “I’m calling from my jazzy new phone, but I forgot something,” she said. I thought she’d send me searching under the bed for a pair of shoes or glasses, but instead she said, “Thank you.’”

Through our new phones, we reviewed the highlights of her visit, and couldn’t help laughing about passwords, Popsockets, and rusty potato chips.


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