Two years ago, following my father's death, my mother found herself living alone for the first time in six decades. The situation, to her children and grandkids, was fraught with peril. Yes, my 86-year-old mother was a miracle of health and vigor. But her house in Connecticut, which she and my father had built in 1952, was designed around staircases, inclines and passages too narrow for emergency management. Its dramatic architecture made it possible to entertain hundreds -- but not to house a live-in aide. And my mother's suburban enclave offered such pristine seclusion that the closest neighbor could not possibly hear a cry for help.
I'd long ago moved to California. My brother lived half an hour from Mom. We thought she should consider moving, but ours had never been a family to meddle in one another's business. She insisted she was fine with the status quo.
Her solution to our concerns was to start a phone tree with nearby friends. "We call each other every morning," she told me briskly, "to make sure we're alive."
Mom was good to her word. Alas, her friends proved less reliable. First, Francis departed for the Cape. Lily had her hands full with her invalid husband. And Sara got overloaded at work.
My brother and I tried to pick up the slack by phoning Mom on alternating days, but we were busy too, and each of these calls stretched an hour or longer. My mother, lonely and hard of hearing, did 90% of the talking.
"You know," I finally said, "we could do this by e-mail."
I expected her to resist. She was just getting her digital bearings and claimed her computer was demonically possessed. So the next morning I sent her a prompt: "Happy Earth Day!"
"Rush out and kiss a flower," she wrote back. "Celebrate the miracle of Green." The subject on her reply message was "Hello Earth Day." By the next morning, the subject had morphed into a permanent header -- Hello Today -- and our online party line was launched.
A listserv or group distribution list would have required too much explanation. Whoever got to the computer first each morning -- usually Mom -- simply pasted the addresses for the rest of us into a new e-mail, and we each hit Reply to All. It was my mother, brother, sister-in-law and me at the start, but soon my uncle joined from his mountain home in Georgia. Occasionally, we included the wider family.
This simple system represented a great leap forward. There had been whole years when my mother and uncle did not speak, phone or write. And my brother and I hadn't had this much contact even when we were kids. Never had our group communications seemed so relaxed, even effortless.
At first our daily rounds began with Mom's "On deck this morning!" announcement, followed by her report on the hedgehogs, wild turkeys and deer in her garden or her latest squirt-gun battle with the squirrels raiding her bird feeder. I'd reply with a snapshot of my current writing project or book recommendation. My sister-in-law would update us on her toy inventions, and my brother would fill us in on publishing industry antics, finishing up with links to the day's most outrageous political screeds and YouTube phenoms.
Then came the recession. Within our extended family, first unemployment hit, then the specter of foreclosure, then serious illness. Suddenly Mom was not the only one who needed attention. Hello Today became less a party line than a family council and group therapy forum.
Electronically we conferred, comforted each other and voted on available interventions. We traded references to lawyers, doctors and real estate brokers, brainstormed job possibilities, researched diagnoses and support groups, and swapped links to online information about mortgage modification, Social Security benefits and insurance coverage. With all of us working together, despite our geographic separation, the immediate crises eventually peaked and subsided.
Stress had historically pulled our family apart instead of bringing us together, but Hello Today altered that pattern. Because we now had this routine of checking in on one another, we found it easier to confront problems as they emerged.
My mother still lives in her home, alone. Doubtless many more crises await us. No one is immune to the vagaries of this recession -- or of life, for that matter. But through my family's lows, highs and in-betweens, Hello Today will continue like a reassuring heartbeat in our collective inbox.