Bubbe has a tenuous relationship with technology. Eight years ago, on her 75th birthday, we got her an iPad 2 — her first computer. It was in use, briefly — I remember one paragraph-length text I got from her while my family and I were sightseeing in Boston. But soon after, she pulled away from trying to learn how to use it. In 2015, she and Papa moved from the New Hyde Park house where they’d spent more than 50 years of marriage and raised two daughters — first my Aunt Elisa, then my mom. Their new home would be a newly renovated apartment at The Greens at Half Hollow, a 55-and-older gated community in Melville five minutes from where I live. By then, the iPad stayed safely ensconced in its purple folio, closed and charging, on Papa’s writing desk.
Slowly, though, we brought new marvels into their apartment. First, an Android phone — replacing the latest in a string of aging flip phones. I put pictures of her contacts on the home screen to make it easier for her to know whom she was calling. It worked, except when she left it unlocked and everyone in the family got minutes-long voicemails from her purse. One Black Friday, we bought them a Google Home Mini, which to this day tells them the weather and reminds them of who the handsome actor was in that long-ago movie with the title they half remember.
Beyond that, she’s been reluctant. Whenever my mom suggests we put a streaming stick in their TV so they can watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, she reassures me a few minutes later, “you don’t have to do that today, Josh. We’ll be ok.” She’s still one of the only people, besides telemarketers and phishing scammers, who regularly calls our landline. If she accidentally presses a button that sets her phone’s clock five hours ahead, I’m on call to fix it.
But sometimes circumstances force change. As was the case when Bubbe’s normally in-person appointments with Dr. Cooperman were hijacked by the pandemic. She’d be using the NYU Langone app to call in every Thursday afternoon — a daunting task for the iPad that, since they moved, had sat dormant.
I drove to their apartment a half hour before her first virtual appointment, with a different mindset than I’d have before a regular visit. I had to keep six feet away, avoid the usual hugs hello and goodbye, and refrain from touching anything. I didn’t have gloves, so I planned instead to grab things through my sweatshirt pockets. I brought a rubber stylus to touch the iPad’s screen without using my fingers.
When I peeked through the window above the front door, Papa shuffled over and unlocked it.
“Look who it is! The Geek Squad.”
“Not quite,” I replied. I walked over to where the iPad was lying on the kitchen counter. I downloaded the app, read their login information off a nearby Post-It note, and set up the call. When it was time, she would push the green button at the bottom of the screen to start the video feed. Between my covered hands, I carried a small cardboard box of alcohol wipes to prop up the screen and fix the camera angle.
While we waited, Bubbe thanked me repeatedly. Papa offered me a bottle of Poland Spring from the fridge and showed me the piece of elastic he sewed to his suspenders to keep them together.
“It’s a new world,” he said, as he often did when talking about technology.
By the time of the appointment, Bubbe was connected and chatting with Dr. Cooperman, my cue to leave. I told them to call me if any problems arose, but there were none.
Since then, both of my grandparents have slowly grown comfortable with talking through the screen. They even call my mom on FaceTime — unprompted. For Bubbe and Papa, it took a pandemic to learn how to use their iPad. But it’s worth it to blow kisses at them, even virtually.