I am on a video call using my laptop. I stare at the blank screen waiting for my virtual host to arrive.
Meantime, I see the miniature version of my prodigious Mister Potato Head face on my monitor. I am trying to ignore the fact that I look like I’ve been sleeping under a porch for the last several decades. I try to fix my hair, but I only make more fall out.
I’m having a rough morning.
The conference call is joined by another entity, but no image yet. Then comes the voice. An adult woman speaks. “Hello? Can you see us?”
“How about now?”
“Hold on. Anything?”
The sound of technological fiddling. “Wait… This stupid… Freakin’ camera… I need to… Get my…” Crashing noise. Followed by: “Anything?”
I sympathize with tech confusion. I don’t jibe with the digital effluvia of modern life. No matter how I try, I cannot feel warm and fuzzy about video calls, GPSs, or applying signatures to PDF files. These are dark arts.
I bought my first cellphone when I was a grown man with a mortgage. Back then mobile phones were novelty devices roughly the size of cinderblocks, you had to carry them in leather holsters like Little Joe Cartwright. We’ve come a long way.
Suddenly, a face appears on my screen. A mother seated beside a 12-year-old girl. The mother scheduled this call last week as a surprise for her daughter.
Both ladies are wearing strings of pearls.
“Hi!” they say with a wave.
The girl is first to speak. “These are my grandmother’s pearls, they’re not real, they’re Majorica, she let me borrow them for this, I read your story about how your mother-in-law always wears pearls.”
My mother-in-law would be monumentally proud. Eighty-one-year-old Mother Mary wears pearls and poppy-red Color Envy matte lipstick to check her mailbox.
The mother straightens her daughter’s necklace and says, “My mom wore these when she met my dad back in the midsixties.”
I smile because although we are communicating via George Jetson technology, it’s nice that some traditions remain timeless. It’s hard to imagine Glenn Miller playing a dance tune called “String of Smartwatches.”
The girl leans into her mother and whispers, “Tell me what he looks like, Mom.”
Which confuses me because the girl’s eyes are open.
Her mother gives me a glance. “You mind if I describe your face to her?”
“Only if your stomach is up for it.”
So the woman describes my physical assets in detail. “Well… Um, he’s got a lot of, ah, hair… A beard… And he has a very full—you know—face…”
The girl happily interrupts when she’s had enough descriptive horrors. The kid says, “We just finished all your books, everything you’ve ever written, I really feel like I know you now.”
Long pause. I’m flattered beyond speech.
The girl shows a smile. “I’m blind, in case you’re wondering.”
Then the mother-daughter duo tells me the girl’s life story. She was born prematurely, and developed a host of infections that nearly killed her and robbed her of eyesight. This kid is a fighter.
Her mother jumps in. “So one of our favorite things to do has always been reading novels. I’ve been reading to her each night since she was a baby.”
The girl adds, “I have really wanted to meet you ‘cause I think we could be friends, you know?”
I glance at the goofy image of myself on my laptop screen. I look like Yukon Cornelius after a bad night. “Well, it’s nice to meet you.”
“So can I tell people we’re friends now?”
“How about cousins?”
“Be an honor.”
“So we’re cousins then?”
“Thicker than water.”
We talk some more. We cover lots of ground. The girl tells me about herself and her daily life. About her new service dog, Brady. Then, our conversation becomes more sincere. And if sincerity were a liquid, this child would be the Pacific.
She offers something autobiographical:
“Sometimes when you’re blind, people treat you like you’re stupid, and not the same. Some kids act like I can’t even climb stairs or read books. Or like I won’t ever get married someday. But we read books, and trust me, I will get married one day.”
And something is flaring up my allergies.
The child leaves me with the kindness of her words. “Before I go, I just wanted to tell you that me and my mom are thankful to have you in our lives.”
The miniature Potato Head on my monitor is now officially a mess when it tries to speak. “Thank you. I really… I just…”
“No. You don’t have to say anything.” The girl says this with a childlike lilt. “But you can maybe write about me in one of your blogs sometime.”
“Make sure you mention our pearls.”
“Oh, and also, I love you, Cousin Sean.”
Maybe technology isn’t so bad.