At 93 years old, my dad is looking for an instruction book.
He’s not wrong. Nearly everything he owned came with a printed booklet explaining how to either set, operate or troubleshoot his purchase. And in our childhood home, we kept a library’s worth bursting from a single drawer.
I’m sitting in his apartment; he’s looking down at his new cellphone.
“Where’s the instruction book?” he said. “Certainly one came with the box.”
I tell him no, but he might find an answer by going online.
“There are user guides and websites with lots of helpful suggestions,” I said.
He looks at me, his nose pointed down, eyes pointed up — the same look he employed a hundred times when he smelled a childhood fib coming his way.
“No instruction book? How am I supposed to know how to fix it when it goes haywire?”
I think back to memories of our television going kaput and him dragging up from the basement a cardboard box filled with mysterious vacuum tubes and beeping handheld devices.
A familiar musk always escaped into the air as he lifted the tattered brown lids.
I can still hear the soundtrack of clinking and clanking of tubes, much like a mad scientist in a desperate search of that one special ingredient.
If it was electronic and broken, my dad was convinced he could fix the problem. And for the most part, he could. If it came apart, it could surely go back together. Televisions, radios, cars.
His generation believed you disposed of an item only after the threads wore clear through or the smoke coming out of the back spooked my mom too much.
On this day, he’s looking down at his hand and in it a small electronic device with more computing power than sent men to the moon — that comes without a printed instruction book.
He goes silent, mulling his options.
“Guess all I can do is play around with it,” he said.
Our son recently came by for the weekend. Afterward, I found myself in my dad’s shoes.
Crawling around below the bedroom nightstand, he fidgeted with cords and entered digits into my cell phone.
“There,” he said. “All you have to do is to ask the nightstand to turn on or off.”
After a half-century of reaching to twist a thumb-sized switch, my son was rewriting the instruction book on me.
I asked the small disc-shaped device to turn on the lights. The light illuminated the white lampshade. I asked the same device to turn off the light. The shade darkened on cue.
Pushing down my initial hesitation to this change, I accepted his world creeping into mine. I could get aboard or be left behind.
That night, I found myself repeating the instructions several times, the device’s actions sensitive to my specific words. Pangs of uncertainty populate my confidence as I try to remember the exact commands. I called out several times.
Frustrated, I twisted the knob.
If only I had an instruction book.