My Mother: Technology and Retirement in the Pandemic

My parents now have the same sleep schedule they yelled at me about in high school. My mother goes to bed at midnight and sleeps until nine or ten a.m., there’s no one to tell her any differently. This is fascinating to me. As a teenager, I used to do the same thing, only to have my father burst into my room and rouse me from my pleasant slumber when his patience was exhausted. He even had a catchphrase, which wasn’t even a complete sentence, more of an alarm of which the mere volume was meant to wake me. “Burnin’ Daylight!” he would bellow and then be gone.

As long as I’ve known my parents, they have been hard workers. My mother has always had two jobs. My father and her own a corporation in Washington state that manufactures fishing boats. My father designs them, has the pieces cut from aluminum, and then welds them together to create some of the finest fishing vessels on the west coast. My mother does everything else including taxes, payroll, managing the books, paying L&I, and all the evils thwarted upon small businesses in America today.

My mother has also been in education for the last thirty years. She’s done many different jobs in that field, but mostly, she has worked as a para-educator. These are the people that work to catch up the struggling students with their homework. They are the guardians on duty as your children exit the school and load on to the buses, ensuring no child is unaccounted for or goes with the wrong parent that day. They are the essentials that ensure the teachers can do their jobs.

I never thought I would ever see my parents slow down. I expected to see my mother retire two or three times and my father flirt cautiously with the idea but never really embrace it. However, as my aging baby-boomer parents crept toward the age they could start collecting social security, my father began to accept less and less work building fewer and fewer boats. They hired more temporary positions, and my mother began to threaten more and more frequently to retire despite my attempts to dissuade her.

Why dissuade her, you ask? What business is it of mine, you ask? Four years ago, I made the classic millennial life choice and decided to go to grad school. Of course, not just any grad school but law schools, one of the more frustrating and expensive types of grad school where a quarter of those who complete the degree won’t even end up practicing. As my mother increased her warnings, I emphasized to her that despite the tuition I was paying myself, and my full-time job, being a law student is full of stupid expenses everywhere. $300 per textbook, $1000 for this prep course, $100 for this membership, $200 to access bar essays on this website. For terrified young students who are being thrown in the shark tank, any life raft is worth paying for.

All of this changed in 2020. Naturally, as the first reports of Covid-19 spread rapidly across the state of Washington, I was terrified for my mother. As anyone who works with little kids will tell you, they are germ factories. Every year my mother would spend more and more days out sick, feeling the exasperation of other health ailments. Her arthritis would flare-up. Then stomach problems. Then respiratory. While working two jobs, she told me she didn’t have the time to go to the gym, or prepare healthy meals at home, or maintain her walking schedule as she did in the long hours of the Summer.

Thankfully, the schools shut down. In March she called me to tell me she was going home and she was taking everything with her. She knew they would not be returning for the rest of the academic year. Maybe she knew then that she was never going back. I watched as my mother learned what a breakout session was. She called to tell me about the pile of books she was supposed to read to discuss with the kids. I had a front-row seat to the chaos as the teachers and administration struggled to create a remote curriculum right away.

In April, I returned home for 10 days where I set up my mom’s online banking. I showed her how to scan and email her time cards to the district office. We set up an online printer so my parents can print from anywhere in the house from any device. I introduced her to a variety of apps that would help her clean out her closet when she inevitably got to the Marie Kondo phase of quarantine. I set up her Venmo and showed her how to make a mobile order at Starbucks. I struggled back and forth with her, trying to convince her to wear a Fitbit so I could monitor her steps every day. This is another thing we millennials are famous for, thinking our parents are helpless because they don’t understand their iPhones.

But I understand my parents are not helpless. My father owns a plasma cutter. My mother knows what Tiktok is. (Remember, she works with little kids.) The pandemic signaled a societal shift that we all experienced. Whereas once you just went to the bank to make a deposit, in April, the doors were locked. It was required to move money with the push of your thumb. Millennials embraced this technological ease years ago, but many of our parents did not. They liked to visit, they said. Covid has made us all millennial, subject to electronic and telephonic services where we relied on human beings before.

I was so proud of my mom as I made my departure, printing, and zooming, and reading her free Amazon Kindle books. Dad had learned how to send a text, and we were all proud of that as well. Back in California, I gladly accepted calls as mom struggled with installing Zoom on her laptop versus her desktop. Frantic and frustrated, I would Facetime her and calmly try to explain to just right click. You just right-click, mom. I was so grateful for Facetime. My mother, along with most of the general public that I have worked with, doesn’t understand that the more frustrated you are with your technology, the less it works for you.

Despite all of the terrible, rotten, awful no good things that Covid-19 has brought us, can we all just take a minute and acknowledge a few of the good things? For some of us, the daily commute to work is dead. Depending on the type of employment you’re in, we have a reason to expand this model to as many fields as we can. There has been an increase in access to those who live afar. For example, a Zoom house warming party allows your friend from college who lives on the other side of the country to attend, and a Zoom wedding has allowed guests that wouldn’t normally be able to make it to the destination wedding you envisioned. In-person visits you may have reserved for your annual flight to your hometown might be more frequent because of the convenience of an online visit.

Personally, the pandemic has allowed me to participate in contract renegotiations with my union this year. Normally they take place in Sacramento, five hours away, and two days are allotted per union member. This year, I could attend without the travel, and because the negotiations were held on Zoom and no one needed to worry about returning to our individual offices, bargaining spanned five days instead of two which resulted in better outcomes for the union members. I could also attend a four days writer’s conference, a book release party that was hosted by Skylight Books in Los Angeles, a game night with friends in Santa Rosa and a live panel on the future of theater with Neil Patrick Harris and Hillary Clinton. I also accepted that my mother was going to retire.

My mother is not alone in this transition. A recent trip to clear out a showroom at the REEF building in Los Angeles confirmed this. The building is a 12 story, 60,000 square foot space for wholesale sellers. The building is now almost completely empty. A few of the business acquaintances of the people I was there with had been there for decades. Now, despite their plans, retirement is the way to go. My friends, young entrepreneurs, are trying the other approach, pivoting to online and phone sales.

I’d like to acknowledge that not everyone is in this position. My job puts me in a situation where I directly work with the indigent. Social Services have tried to adapt as best they can to transition to online and phone service, but there are still those with no phone, no email. All the library branches I am familiar with have been closed since March, once the sole provider of internet access to those who could find it nowhere else. A third of Americans don’t own a credit card and many do not have a bank account, which means food delivery services, online shopping, and replacements for mass transit services like Lyft and Uber are out of the question. It was months into the Pandemic that Amazon decided to accept Electronic Benefits, formerly known as food stamps, through their e-commerce site after millions of Americans became eligible for and received them. In July, Congress passed the Rural Broadband Act with the goal of giving internet access to rural communities that have historically been excluded.

I’d like to say we’re moving in the right direction, and that the technological leaps we’ve either been forced to advance, or forced to accept is the greatest way to advance our society together and strengthen our sense of community even if it’s the online community and not the gathering at the coffee shop we’ve grown accustomed too. But there are problems with that statement. Whole socioeconomic demographics are being excluded. GrubHub doesn’t accept EBT or deliver to the homeless who lack a physical address. Our senior citizens without help monitor their local stay-at-home orders, shopping at their designated store hours, and missing their grandchildren. The barriers persist.

I knew my mother was going to retire before she did, or at least before she would fully admit to any of us that she was committed to the decision. Of course, I had my own reasons to want her to retire. Our roles are reversing and as my career grows stronger and my position in my community emerges, hers winds down and the responsibilities reduce. Above all, I want her safe. I see that she is tired, that we are all tired, and under no circumstances did I want to see her go back to school in the fall. I rearranged my finances. I consolidated my debt. I prepared for my mother’s retirement. And then, I slowly watched her embrace the conclusion herself. My baby bird was ready to fly. For a while. At least until my next trip north, to fix whatever it is they’ve broken or needs updating.


Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Elaina Erola

Elaina Erola studied English at Western Washington University and is an Alumni of Humboldt State University. She is currently pursuing a Juris Doctorate from Northwestern California University and has been published in the Seven Gill Shark Review, winning both honorable mention and second place for prose. She has also been published in Toyon Literary magazine and was selected for a scholarship to the 2020 Mendocino Writers Conference as well as third place in their annual writing contest for memoir. She was recently published in Bad Bride Magazine and The Dewdrop. She is working on her first book.