Memoria calls and pushes us forward. Memoria is a friend of ours. We must invite her into our classrooms and into our scholarship. —Victor Villanueva (2004, p. 19)




It is nearly noon on a clear, cool September day, just a few days before my 56th birthday and my third year in Eastern Washington—living a life I never dreamed, never imagined I’d have. I thought that the ending of the story would be set in the same scene where the first chapters took place—Eastern South Dakota. But 40-some years in, the story changed and the narrative took an unexpected turn—as stories are wont to do. But the story of those changes isn’t exactly the story I want to tell here, even though a bit of history seems appropriate to set the scene. The current story—the one this piece deals with more specifically—is about technology and change. For me, like many others of my generation, technology and change have been life-long companions, a companionship that calls up memories. Memoria didn’t need an invitation to this piece; she was comfortably settled in its textual parlor from the beginning.

Miller, SD (Central South Dakota—a place some might call the "middle of nowhere,” but a place that still plays large in the middle of my somewhere): the early 1950’s, the first decade of my life. Soft, out-of-focus memories of arriving at Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Friday evening in time to cuddle into Grandpa’s lap and listen to Gunsmoke on the radio. Cold mornings awakening in the attic bedroom to the smells of coffee and crackling bacon. A fat-bellied, black lab puppy who moved so fast that I commented (so I’m told), "Look at him move, he’s a little zipper,” and thus he was named Zipper.


And that amazing shiny black telephone sitting on the dining room’s well-worn oak buffet (a piece—according to family lore—salvaged from a fire in a local bar). But the phone—a phone that was magic—a dial-less wonder. All I had to do was pick it up to enjoy the thrill of talking to a "real person” operator. No cold, lifeless dial tone. Instead a woman’s voice. And she knew who I was! I picked up the phone to call Grandpa’s office and find out when he was coming home for supper. I’d simply ask to talk to my Grandpa. The female oracle on the other end asked how long my Mom, Dad, and I would be visiting. "For a couple days,” was the standard answer, and then she’d connect me to him. There’s no surprise that in my child-mind this was far superior to the automated dialing calls made in my hometown of Madison on the Eastern, more populated edge of the State.


In Madison, single-party phone lines were the norm in the late 1950s, but a move in the mid-60s to beyond the city limits meant an entirely different telephone experience where my phone world became public—not a happy development for a teenager. We shared the line with what seemed like thousands of people, all of whom used the phone much more than I was happy with and wanted to make phone calls when I was talking to a friend. In reality, we shared the line with only five or six other families, but that meant short calls, no privacy, and access only when someone else wasn’t using the line.


Fast-forward to 2006. No haze of memory to soften this reality. My home has phone jacks in every room (including six in the office alone—a relic of a former owner who apparently ran a home business). Not one of these jacks is in use. My life no longer includes a land-line phone; I’ve gone entirely mobile. The little girl who used to marvel at magic connections to her Grandpa is now a Grandma herself. And this Grandma carries an almost equally magical connector in her pocket or backpack, rarely escaping its reach. Like many in my generation, changes in communication technology rank near the top of technological revolutions in our lives. Telling the stories may make us sound like we’re slipping into fogey-ism. But my story (and my quest) in this piece isn’t about cell phones or my possibly fogey-ish recollections. It’s about family connections in the digital world—connections that I know are important. The spark for this piece was a response I sent to the Techrhet-L listserv in July 2006. My contribution was in response to a thread discussing whether email was dated or "old school.” What follows is exactly as I responded on the list—with a few names added to clear up confusion.

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I've had the most interesting email, phone, IM experiences in the last couple weeks. Late last week I was emailing my daughter Katie when I noticed that my Australian son-in-law Quinny was on Skype. I IM'ed him and started that conversation while I was finishing up the email to Katie in Minnesota. Then my daughter in Australia, Abby, called me via Skype, and we started talking while I was still IMing with her husband. I was wearing headphones, but Abby and Quinny were not, so I could hear all of their conversations and verbally comment while I carried on a parallel conversation with Quinny via IM.


Pretty cool, but then it got even better. My son Seth in Germany and my son Adam in Minnesota got on to Skype at almost the same time, so we all IM'ed in one chat session—Quinny, Seth, Adam, and me. My son’s German girlfriend Nadege also joined in the IM session on her computer. I was still Skype-phoning Abby while having the IM session with everyone else—which she was watching on her husband's screen and commenting on. It was just incredibly cool, especially given the distances at which we live and the difference in time zones. Just happened that the Aussies were up late, the German crew was on in mid-afternoon, the son in Minnesota logged on as soon as he got in to work, and I (living in Pacific time) was up very early.


In addition to the talking, typing, we were exchanging pictures too. I had just gotten back from vacation and had cool pics to share. There were new pics of the Australian grandchildren. So pics were flying between us as well.

So? What does all this mean academically? I'm sure there's an article in it somewhere—a diss perhaps. But for me, it just means that my far-flung family and I can keep in touch in a way that none of us ever imagined. And it means that even though we're far apart physically, we can be part of each other's lives in more meaningful ways than the old weekly phone call would have allowed.



Several Techrhetors responded to that message—with comments like "I don’t even know your kids, but I really like them” and "Such fun hearing about your family, Patty!" One person said, "You gotta write this up and do something with it.” I took that advice, but it took lots of brainstorming and the addition of a collaborator to figure out just what that "something” was. But there’s more to the story before we get to the "something.”

A few weeks later, I spent a long session on Skype with Leila (the five-year-old in Australia). We were connected via phone (through Skype) and were IMing too. She was reading my messages aloud to me and responding by writing (and using all kinds of emoticons—learning to compose on a system that allows emoticons, pictures—learning that way from the get-go—another article there, I’m sure). I had the thrill of hearing her read for the first time—through reading my IM entries.

I was delighted and thrilled with this in-touch world of Skype and the daily contact with my far-flung family it could provide. But as stories of technology often go, this one takes a turn from the utopian to the disappointing. Adam’s job banned the use of Skype and access was closed down. He doesn’t have his own computer, so our brief, casual daily contacts via IM are gone. Abby’s computer stopped working. How does a young family working hard to make ends meet come up with money for a new computer?


Patty was challenged by the exhortation of the Techrhetter who told her “You gotta write this up and do something with it.” She realized there was something to be said about her family’s experience, but was unable to distance herself enough from the experience itself to understand or critique it well. She knew that if she waited long enough, she would have insights, but with the moving target of technology, waiting for those insights might make them as useful as writing about using the telegraph for family communication would be!