Mom and Dad Get a Computer

THE machines sat on the table for 30 minutes before she noticed. We talked about our trip, happenings at church. Then she walked into the living room and saw the screen and the printer. She put her hand to her forehead to hide a tear or two.

My mother had just been given her first computer.

High technology moves so fast that we think of newness and future generations. We forget, sometimes, that technology can flow to older generations, too.

For years, my mother talked of getting a computer. My father belittled the idea. And I, too, wondered what she would do with it. Her proposed uses never seemed very convincing. When she talked about computerizing recipes, all I could think of was flour getting stuck between the keys.

A software program changed my mind. My mother could really use Concord, a religious study aid put out by the church that publishes this newspaper. When the church cut the price nearly in half, I knew it was only a matter of time.

What kind of computer does one get for one's parents? My mother is always on the move. My father, an artist type, would want a nice color screen. Surprisingly, this meant getting these first-time users a notebook computer, and the most expensive kind - one with a color, active-matrix display. I gulped hard and settled on a Toshiba T4500C. It's not every day one buys one's parents their first computer.

The Toshiba is fairly advanced: an Intel 486SX chip, four megabytes of random-access memory, and a 120-megabyte hard drive powered by a new generation nickel-metal-hydride battery. (Sorry, Apple PowerBook fans. My mother had always talked of owning an IBM-compatible machine.) When the Toshiba came - along with a simple Panasonic dot-matrix printer - I thought the hard decisions were over. Wrong! Software questions would prove far harder.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon and were scheduled to leave early Tuesday. With less than 48 hours, I suddenly had to decide what crucial skills I should teach my parents. Stick with DOS or introduce Windows? Emphasize the integrated trackball or concentrate on keystrokes?

I knew Concord would be important. Even though it's a DOS-based program, it seemed best to have my parents access it through Windows. That meant getting used to the trackball, clicking on various windows, and using the pull-down menus.

Concord was an immediate hit. By day two, my mother could take the Toshiba into her study to look up passages. She'd come out smiling after figuring something out or looking quizzical when she had a question.

The process was different with my father. He had used computers before as a travel agent, so he knew the importance of the Enter and Escape keys. He was also much more adventurous than my mother in trying new things. But he was also less disciplined. He would ask questions a second time.

And what questions!

I was prepared for basic queries, but not this basic. How do you turn on the machine? How do you turn off the machine? The biggest obstacle seemed to be learning to exit application program and Windows itself.

After we left, I got more calls. My father needed help exiting a program (and by the way, how do you turn off the computer again?). My mother wanted to make sure it was OK to unplug the computer and printer from the wall even if they were still hooked together via the print cable.

My hunch is that if this were another appliance, even an unfamiliar one, they would not ask these basic questions. But the computer is something still foreign and unnatural. By the same token, I was surprised how quickly they caught on to the machine's possibilities. Could they write letters on it? Keep their checking accounts on it? What about a database of mailing labels? The first time we printed a document, I knew they were hooked.

"We still can't believe that we have a computer," my mother said in her last phone call. "It's like entering a whole new world."

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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