the virtual family

Last night, my step-daughter Chelsea, who is living out of state at the moment with James’ ex-wife, stopped by for dinner.  Actually, she arrived before dinner, in time to help Bryn with her homework, and say hi to all of us, including the dogs, who were confused but overjoyed to hear the sound of her sweet voice.  When we sat down for dinner, Chelsea said grace with us and joined in the conversation around the table.  It would have been a perfectly ordinary, unexceptional family evening, but for one thing:

Chelsea was still in Florida.

Her presence among us was made possible by the extraordinary technology known as Facetime, her image delivered into our home courtesy of Bryn’s iPad screen.

Throughout the evening, James and I just kept looking at each other and shaking our heads — how strange and wondrous that Chelsea should be there in our kitchen, watching me cook, talking to her dad, prompting Bryn when she hit a difficult part of her homework, when, in fact, she is almost 2,000 miles away from us.  We talked to her as if she were perched on one of the kitchen barstools, hearing about her day and telling her of ours.  Not in the conventional back-and-forth that is the natural structure for a telephone conversation, but in a messy, lots of overlapping voices and laughter manner that is better-suited to an in-face dialogue.  And when we sat down to eat, Chelsea brought her own snack along, to join in the eating ritual.

I have Facetimed and Skyped before, but never for that duration or in that casual manner.  Bryn carried Chelsea’s bodyless head in her iPad from room to room as she prepared for dinner, and I was constantly aware of Chelsea’s voice as it moved from room to room, as if any minute she would come bounding down the stairs to help me set the table.  It was remarkable.

When I was a teenager, I had a long-distance relationship with a boy who lived five hours away in my grandmother’s town.  We wrote letters almost constantly, and saved pennies to accommodate our long telephone conversations.  It was not uncommon for my share of the family long-distance bill to surpass $300 per month.  It was a serious financial burden, but one we willingly bore, as it was also the only way to keep our romance alive.  In fact, for a year we managed to survive on weekly letters and phone calls and less than a handful of in-person visits, but ultimately our fledgling relationship was undone — not by the expense or hassle of the distance, but by the simple nature of teenage hormones.  He found someone there in his town, and I moved on to someone in mine.

I marvel at all the ways that we can stay connected these days.  I know a lot of adults denigrate or downplay the value of technology as a means of connection for those too young to hop a plane or get in a car, but sometimes I am overcome with gratitude that these vehicles exist.  Bryn and Chelsea have a bond that is indescribable and would likely survive with or without the technological assists they get from their devices.  But those devices enable them to be more than long-distance friends; they enable them to remain in each other’s lives on a nearly daily basis.  To hear the ups and downs of a day.  To support each other when challenges are faced.  To confide in one another when adults aren’t available for whatever reason.

And for James and I, those precious Facetime moments with his children tell us so much about how they are doing and feeling than a telephone possibly could.  Their body language, the brightness of their eyes, the way they engage — those pictures far surpass the information we can glean from phone conversations.

I know that as adults we are often frustrated with the ways that our children communicate.  We decry the loss of the face-t0-face conversation and the immersion in texting.  But hasn’t that always been the case?  I remember my own parents screaming at the teenage me to get off the telephone before I gave myself a cauliflower ear.  And none of us can forget the brouhaha that ensued when email began to replace snail mail as the preferred method of written communication.   It makes me feel certain that when the telephone first came into general acceptance, there must have been elders who bemoaned the end of written correspondence and the accompanying demise of civilization.  All of this is not to say that I don’t monitor my children’s media usage and consumption, but I think sometimes it’s important to notice the value, as well as the dangers.

And I, for one, am ridiculously grateful to the creators of Facetime, for allowing  my precious Chelsea to warm our home on such a cold winter’s night.   It’s definitely not as good as a real hug, but it’s far, far better than nothing.

long distance love

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