Virtual world can nourish real-world relationships


NET RESULTS:The internet has made it possible for my family to stay connected, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

JUST OVER seven years ago, my cousins in the US midwest made use of the free “groups” feature on Yahoo to set up a discussion group for my mother’s side of the family.

A gang of us had gathered that May, when Mother’s Day is celebrated in the US, to honour first and foremost my grandmother, then a youthful 94, and all the mothers in subsequent generations. Really, it was just an excuse to hold yet another informal family reunion.

That side of my family is large and sprawling and, as we all happily acknowledge, a bit mad.

We hold regular family reunions in the midwest, which tend to involve a lake, small boats, children fishing or flying out over the water on a rope swing and startling the lake perch and turtles with a sudden plunge, barbecues, bonfires, and ice coolers full of beer and what relatives out there tend to call “pop” (soft drinks).

Two of my cousins thought a Yahoo group would be a useful way of connecting us all up and sharing pictures. Needing a name for the group, they called it “Lillingtons Gardens” to mark my grandmother as the family matriarch – my grandparents ran a nursery for many years with that name.

Some of you may have caught the anomaly there: I am talking about my mother’s family, so why did a nursery run by my mother’s parents carry my father’s unusual surname? Okay, this is where you may need to get out a pencil and draw some diagrams.

My mother’s mother married my father’s father in the 1960s when both had lost their spouses.

My mother’s father died before I was born, while my father’s mother died when I was small, leaving a few faint memories behind of a sweet and gentle woman.

The romance between grandma and grandpa blossomed while they were both visiting us. Their marriage made my parents step-siblings and makes me my own cousin, as far as I can tell. As a child, I thought their marriage made perfect sense: now I could see my grandparents on the same visit, which was far handier.

Anyway, grandpa passed away many years ago after many lovely years with my very active grandmother who, along with her endless hobbies such as painting and woodcarving and gardening, is famous in the family for having crashed into a pine tree at speed on a minibike out in my uncle’s back fields (once my great- grandfather’s farmland). In her early 80s. Clearly, that kind of chutzpah required a Yahoo group.

Our Yahoo group has connected the family now for seven years of sharing stories, memories, pictures, videos, links to news stories and family obituaries, and good-natured banter. We’ve used it to plan reunions that are like small military campaigns in their complexity – who is hosting which party on which day?

More recently, Lillingtons Gardens has been where all the family would gather whenever my grandmother fell ill. Relatives who lived nearby could give consoling updates to those of us who were far away, and we all felt a bit closer to the much-loved matriarch as a result, even when “far away” meant thousands of miles away for some of us.

The group was also the happy focal point for planning a reunion to celebrate grandma’s great milestone of a century. Many of us gathered in advance of the day during the summer to celebrate with her.

We marked her 101st birthday last February. And when we all gathered for a reunion in June for a cousin’s 50th birthday – marvelling at that being less than half grandma’s life – all of us went to visit her every day, as she had by then become too frail to attend parties.

We knew she was unlikely to make 102. And thus it was – our discussion group became, in recent weeks, the place where we marked and honoured her passing. Those who were there to bear witness shared the experience with those of us who couldn’t be there, ensuring we were all part of a humbling and gentle ebbing away of life.

Of course there were also phone calls and personal visits, a wake and a party of celebration for such a life, where people met in person.

But even for those who live near each other and could see each other easily, the group remained a focal point for consolation, for funny grandma stories, and for shared memories, pictures and videos.

The internet has enabled my family to stay connected in ways that would be difficult or even impossible otherwise. It has sustained and refreshed friendships among so many of us who otherwise would probably have faded away, as tends to happen in most families. It has helped us laugh and cry and laugh again.

So when I heard yet another radio discussion this week about how technology, particularly the internet, cuts people off from family life, true engagement, friendship, activity and the “real world”, I could only think how blind some people remain to the possibilities of this wonderful social tool.

Blog and podcasts: