Yesterday we packed-up the family and drove to my parents’ house for an Easter dinner. It was great to see the entire crew, watch my parents try to deal with so many grandchildren all at once, and to thoroughly trounce not one but two of my brothers at crokinole–overheard during the beating: “I know you’re not this good” Yes, yes I am. “I think there is something wrong with this board”…but I digress.
What really affected me was the conversation I had with my grandmother. She had brought an article to read to us about how much the world has changed for those born before 1945. For fifteen minutes she enumerated a list that included: television, computers, frozen food, sex changes, rock music, and a hundred other things so common you’d hardly think to mention them now.
The conversation meandered to my brother’s recent problems with his furnace, and the hilarity [ed: he didn't find it funny] of multiple repairmen, each more inspiring than the last, but all unable to produce any heat. It was at this point that my grandmother joined the two threads together and started to talk about what is most different today, namely, that you can’t fix things.
She told about how my grandfather made his living repairing radios, toasters, fans–anything and everything electrical. He’d only received a 4th grade education in Scotland, before he had to start earning a living to support the family. She described how their entire house, with its mechanical and other systems, was kept working through his creativity and persistence. When the well pump went, he made a new one out of parts from three others. When he read about television for the first time, he built one out of radio parts. When a friend’s furnace quit working, rather than letting it go to the dump, he brought it home and scavenged parts that later made his own work again. He was passionate about reusing things creatively.
When he died, the same year I was born, my grandma told us that she wasn’t sure how she’d go on. Not only did she have to deal with the loss of her husband, but also, she was now left with dozens of systems that had been made to work through love and patience, systems for which there was no manual. Nothing was new; nothing would work on its own for very long. She can remember the well pump going first, and sitting down starting to cry, knowing that she wasn’t able to do what he’d done. “But then I’d hear it–don’t give up, you can’t quit, don’t give up–and it was him, urging me to succeed, willing me win as he had won.” She fixed the pump, and one by one, all the other systems too. For years she carried on what he had begun, without training, without really knowing how.
I found this all very emotional, especially from a 90+ year old woman who still lives on her own, still rides the bus to get her groceries so she won’t be a bother, still helps the ‘old people’ in her building whenever she can. She said she couldn’t believe how today it isn’t possible to fix things like my brother’s furnace, how everything is disposable, unfixable.
I realized at that moment how much I understood what she was saying. My grandmother has never used a computer and doesn’t understand what the Internet is. But I was finally able to tell her what I do: I take things that were never meant to go together and work with them until they fit, patiently refusing to give-up even when it’s not clear I can make it work. Where she and my grandfather worked with pump motors, I work with source code. It might not be possible to fix a furnace any more, but you can still fix software–open source software.
I told her about Mozilla and a dozen other projects and when I’d finished explaining this to her, she smiled and let me know with a look that she was pleased. “He’d have been so proud of you.” It gave me comfort to know that I’m not so far removed from my ancestors. Some things only change their form, but live forever.
Deep in my soul there is something of that man, patiently working with things he didn’t understand, knowing that ‘impossible’ isn’t the same as ‘hard,’ an internal voice urging me to never give-up, not to quit; the same voice with which I teach: don’t give up, you can’t quit, don’t give up. I would have liked to have known him.