Staying in touch is about commitment, not technology

Internet is a tool, not a substitute

WASHINGTON, D.C. - One of the first columns I ever wrote was about pistachios. It was 1999. My grandmother had just died and I had just moved from being a TV producer at CBS News to working on I was trying to sort through both.

I was absent-mindedly walking back to my desk when it hit me. They weren't coming. No pistachios. I panicked. I got sad. 

I realized none of my brothers and sisters, none of my cousins, none of my aunts and uncles would be getting pistachios this year either.

By the time I sat back down I was braced for action. I called directory assistance for area code 847 and got the number of the Ross Nut Co. of Northbrook, Illinois. Family owned since 1952.

A gentle, elderly-sounding woman answered and said, yes, she could answer questions about an order. Even strange ones.

So I began explaining to her that every year since the beginning of time, my grandmother sent pistachios from the Ross Nut Co. to all her relatives. But she had died in May and I was concerned that this would be a Christmas without pistachios.

I wanted to come to the rescue:

I was about to ask the nice lady if I could replicate Amah's pistachio list when she giggled. Just a little. But a definite, audible giggle. 

The apparent rudeness surprised me to the point of stuttering, but she apologized before I could get a sentence out. It was just that I was the fifth or sixth person from Mrs. Gutmann's family to call with the same query, she explained. Was I the grandson in Washington or one of the Arizona ones perhaps? Washington, I said a little sheepishly. 

Our grandmother had survived two daughters and a daughter-in-law. She was the glue of a large, spread out nostalgic family.

Until her very last week, in her 96th year, a phone call to Amah was a phone call to the entire family. One by one she would fill me in on my cousins, my nieces and nephews, sometimes my own brother and sisters. She did the same for all the others, day after day, week after week. Her recall was total. She had 10 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren, and two great-great grandchildren. She knew everything about all of us.

Now we get our family news from this - a computer screen. E-mail. Address groups.

Fifteen years later, the pistachios still magically appear soon after Thanksgiving. And the e-mail chains commence.

But e-mail and now Facebook, Twitter and their kin don’t cut it, we have learned. So every five years we have reunions over a long weekend – four generations, 45 people. In person.

The Internet makes the organizing easier. It is a tool, not a substitute. It doesn’t carry tradition or hold our nostalgia or build new friendships among cousins who live in different parts of the country.

Americans are mobile. Families disperse and so do friends. We have a deep faith that we can stay connected. Doing that takes commitment, not technology.

[Also by Dick Meyer: The Axis of Evil is losing spokes]

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