I took the 5:45pm train from penn station
hundreds of commuters and me
racing north along the frozen hudson
and just as i felt out of place without an ipad on my virgin america flight east
i felt awkward without a new york times on the amtrack north
the next morning I woke up at 8am to go visit my grandmother
I placed my iphone on the arm rest of the recliner
where she spends most of her day
And started recording
Born in 1916, the youngest of 10,
She went to a vocational high school to learn a trade,
And ended up in a finishing course to become a Comptometer operator.
“you know what a comptometer is don’t you? NO? Well it was a machine, that added, subtracted, multiplied and divided, but all by hand.”
She would sit in front of a metal box, cousin of the cash register, sibling of the typewriter, and plug numbers in, and spit numbers out. Rows of girls would do this all day to keep the books straight. In a time when progress looked much like a photo from a factory in China, my grandmother was one of those workers, manufacturing math. Somewhere between the abacus and the calculator, my kin was crunching numbers with bone and flesh.
She was a computer.
At the age of 31, the same age I am now,
She still hadn’t seen the pop up toaster oven that would later serve her family toast, or the helicopter that would bring her sons to war.
In a year when Einstein was still figuring some stuff out, she was pregnant with my father, the youngest of three boys all evenly two years apart.
It wasn’t until ten years later that she found herself pregnant with my aunt joan, at what must have been an embarrassing age of 41 years. Her hair was entirely grey by then. A rarity.
Soon after my grandfather suffered a stroke and she was forced to go back to work. And in 1960 her 1930s education still served her well. She worked as a computer, just as before. The tenure of the comptometer somehow shocked me; twice as long as that of the floppy disc. Eventually, when her boss brought her a new electric calculator, the kind that plugged into the wall, she got the hang of it quite quickly.