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I Keep Track of My Family on Amazon

Our shared Prime account reveals more than our insatiable need for kitty litter.

Photo: Amazon

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My Amazon recommendations are not helpful. Amazon thinks I need a 20-gallon bag of organic kitty litter; Amazon thinks I need zip ties in every primary color; Amazon thinks I need a bizarrely sparkly fishing lure. Occasionally Amazon will serve me up something I do want — a memoir by a funny and self-conscious woman, a face mask popular among Korean skincare bloggers — but for the most part, my algorithm is irrevocably, comically busted.

This is not the fault of Amazon and its fleet of sales robots. It is the fault of me, the 27-year-old gainfully employed person still suckling at the teat of her family’s Prime account. I take care of myself in all other ways, my rent and my therapy bills and the cost of all the crap I’m actually buying on Amazon, but this is one tie I’m in no hurry to sever.

Part of my hesitation is the price. A Prime membership will run you $99 a year; amortized over the number of purchases you are likely to make in that time versus the coveted free shipping it entails, it really isn’t bad, but as an upfront lump sum — a gamble on a future that might not work out — it feels a bit too much for my anxious planning brain to stomach. And Amazon is supposed to be evil, right? Book-killingly evil, mythically evil, like cartoon hyenas and stepmothers. Using my mom’s email login doesn’t mean I’m *not* funneling hundreds-okay-thousands of dollars a year in their direction, but it *is* enticingly passive. I’m lulled by the ease of we’ve-just-always-done-it-this-way, and, of course, by the free two-day shipping.

The other reason I stick with our shared Prime account, though, is a little murkier. I actually like the messed-up algorithm, or at least the feedback that goes into it. I like being able to view the lively swill of all my family’s needs and desires in one place. There are five of us, my mom and my dad and my little brother and sister, spread across three or four cities at a time, and for all that the family group text is fertile ground for making holiday plans and exchanging pictures of our pets, it can be hard to maintain a picture of each person’s day-to-day.

But our Amazon account, with its creepy, intimate omniscience, knows what we are up to. It knows our searches and our save-for-laters and our post-midnight purchases and lays them out in stark terms for the other four to see (which can make shopping for things like gifts or bulk-ordered condoms difficult). On the surface, the record is straightforward: my dad is gearing up for fishing season; my mom is drumming and feeding the ever-growing number of animals; my brother, Matthew, is finishing his second year of music school; and my sister, Moriah, is about to graduate with her BFA in studio art and possibly murder, given the zip ties. I am feathering my nest, as always, with under-cabinet storage and containers for meal prep and $100 trash cans. (This bitch loves a receptacle.) Recently, Matthew came to visit me and offhandedly mentioned his interest in getting his ear pierced. The next week, a bottle of piercing after-care spray appeared in the order history.

Beyond cataloging our activities, though, our Amazon list shows that everyone is chugging along. We’ve had a hard couple of years, speckled with deaths and mental health struggles, no more than any other family but no less a challenge for us. We’ve navigated it gracefully, I think; we’ve kept our humanity, our senses of self, our predilections for waking up early to catch the high tide or staying up late to sew one more piece of robe into a beautifully coiled basket.

Still, I keep an anxious eye on everyone, and I like having this porthole, however small, to peer through. I haven’t lived with my family for almost a decade, nearly a third of my life. This is good — I like having my separate world, my own city and apartment and job and friends. But there is a not-insignificant part of me that thinks if I could somehow always be there, always knew exactly what was going on in the lives of the people I love, I could fix whatever problems might arise. I could ferry them through their sadness, restore their sense of worth, make their lives a little bit easier.

I know this is silly, the same way I know it’s silly to monitor a list of purchases for signs that we will all be okay. I have to trust that we each know how to save ourselves, that we will ask for help when we need it, that we, above anyone else, know what we need. And sometimes, what we need most is a 20-gallon bag of organic kitty litter.