This morning I erased the hard drive in an old computer that belonged to my girlfriend’s mother. The family asked me to delete any personal data that might be hanging around, and I needed some word processors for my writing students, so I hauled that nicotine-colored hulk home to Massachusetts.
Mrs. Goldstein, the computer’s owner, went into a care facility with neurological problems six or seven years ago, and this last year had to be moved out of her condo and into a more comprehensive care environment.
Everywhere I turn in our little house, I am reminded of the old woman’s good taste -- her precise and formidable knowledge of oriental rugs, for instance. “Look at the helicopters in that one,” she once said to me. “It’s Afghan.” Sure enough, the rug contained a symbolic representation of the Soviet occupation, a thing of beauty emerged from a grizzly history.
Her sideboard is dark hardwood and smells of the myrrh of half a century of home cooked meals. Her knives are Solingen carbon steel, and I roll my eyes at a young woman I never met. I tease my wife: what a shame that her mother was too poor to afford a screwdriver. The bent points are just the sort of thing her daughter would do to a very good set of kitchen knives.
We hosted Thanksgiving for my girlfriend’s sisters and for Carol the year that we moved in together. I’d met them all, this family of gentle intellectuals from a university town, in the little living room in Carol’s retirement condo. Much of what we had was once hers, but I was still nervous about the impression our place would make. I’ve cooked for elderly academics before, professionally, but I’d never moved in with the daughter of someone clearly a social class above the one I started out in. I’d never moved in with anyone, or even dated all that much, or had a girlfriend for more than a few months. Plus, I’m from Pennsylvania, and I worry sometimes that it shows despite my education.
But as soon as we sat down to dinner, she noticed my plates. I picked them out when I was twenty and got my own apartment, this bulletproof but very striking set of stoneware: Pfaltzgraff Midnight Sun. I liked to cook even then, and this I quickly found was something else I shared with Carol. She held the plates up to the light, watching the light play over the Aztec-deco design, shaking out the words: “Simply exquisite.” I didn’t care how long it took her to say them; they were what I most needed to hear. She raved about the plates again the following year, as if she’d never seen them before, and then she got a small infection, and things got a lot worse.
We had another conversation I remember, during which I told her that I had been diagnosed with ADD, and that I often had trouble following a linear thought pattern. She’d nodded, patted my hand, and said “I know a little something about that.” Mrs. Goldstein is still both clever and dry, but only for glimmers and moments. My girlfriend weeps in my arms some nights, and writes her letters, because the old woman doesn’t, or can’t, answer the phone.
So this morning I powered on her old computer, satisfied at the thought of using a 17 inch CRT monitor until it died instead of throwing it away, at learning to install LINUX and Open Office, at knowing and doing and at making do. Like me, Mrs. Goldstein kept a messy desktop. Word files with names like “Poems.doc” and “BachNotes.” A desktop photo of a green hill in Europe, some crumbling stonework, a view she had shared with her long-dead husband from some high place. I realized that in a sense, this data was increasingly what was left of Mrs. Goldstein – the educated, cultured woman, the world traveler, the epicure, the inspiration for her awkward husband’s career as a university astronomer, the more-than-biological source of the woman I love. In the ravaged synapses of her brain, many of these files had long ago become corrupt and inaccessible. I think of all of those action movies where the hero gets sucked through an electronic looking glass and into a virtual world – The Matrix, Tron, Ghost In The Shell. They remind us that our brains are wetware, that we are organic computers storing data and routines as electrical impulses. But action movies are very literal, even when they try to be deep and symbolic. There’s no brain-print of my girlfriend’s mother on that 80 gig DeskStar. Just her work, and her correspondence, and her photos of people and places who will never see her again.
I open the CD drive tray, put in my installation CD, and click restart. The ancient stonework on that European hill disappears. The family has taken what they wanted from this obsolete machine, and they’re passing it on, glad to know that it will be used in the service of education. My task is to protect her things by erasing them. In one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s stories, he writes about a wooden coffin “eager to become a tree again” by being buried in the ground. The Ubuntu screen appears on the monitor, but I do not hit the enter key. I let the countdown run out, and the machine beeps, and the data becomes a long chain of ones and zeroes—off and on and on and on and off--without directories to organize that cacophony into thoughts or memories, deprived of significance.
And then the new software installs itself, complete with an office suite that teenagers will use to pour out their experiences and imaginations with the ones and zeroes Mrs. Golstein left behind.
*The title translates to “Legacy” in binary, machine language.