When you’re of a certain age, you and your opinions run the risk of being considered not-relevant by younger people. I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it. That’s because, when I was a bit younger, I always cringed when I read the “Letters to the Editor” in our local paper and saw reminiscences by older people about restaurants and stores that used to be in our town, a flood that happened 50 years ago, and people who used to be important. “Live in the present,” I used to think. Now, a few decades later, I don’t want to fall into the same trap.
My blog has a few loyal readers and I think that most of my readers are middle-aged, but not all of them are. I know that some younger people read my blog. I’m not aware of any readers past middle-age, but, then again, when does middle-age really end? There was a movie starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, where Meryl said to her mother, Shirley, something like, “You’re not middle-aged. I’m middle-aged. How many people do you know who are 120?”
So, when I compose a blog post, I try to write about things that everyone can relate to, no matter your age. But occasionally I do refer to an experience that happened awhile ago, or an object that is considered old-school. Notice that I didn’t say old-fashioned. I make sure to use pop-culture terms when I indulge in a conscious reminiscence.
What’s on my mind now is something that is slowly disappearing and will be missed by many—the house phone. Almost everyone of every age has a cell phone or a smartphone, but many of us who are older than 30 also still have house phones. The younger generations don’t see a need for a phone that is attached to their house or apartment. They do, however, know what a house phone is, because all of them grew up in a house that had one, so as long as I don’t talk about rotary phones, everyone should be able to follow along.
The reason that the house phone will be missed is because it enabled everyone to know what was going on in their family. When it rang, anyone could answer it, and we didn’t know who was going to be at the other end. Kids got to talk to their friends, their parents’ friends, their siblings’ friends, an aunt or uncle, a debt collector, or, if they were really unlucky, their teacher or school principal.
The phone was usually attached to the kitchen wall with a short, curly cord. Some families had phones with really long cords that could stretch around wall corners and up staircases. That didn’t guarantee a private conversation, though. Family members would walk by and overhear snippets of your conversation, either accidentally or on purpose. They’d also yell their comments about your comments so that the person you were talking to could hear them. This was usually very annoying and frequently led to the person on the other end of the line having a front-row seat to a loud family fight. The house phone also enabled everyone in the family to know what everyone else was up to, good and bad. There were few secrets with a family phone, because there was little privacy.
I remember one phone call in particular. It was a Saturday afternoon. Saturdays were always hectic at our house. I was about 10 and had six younger siblings. My mother had just returned from grocery shopping with all seven of us and the kitchen was filled with brown paper bags. My mother and father were putting away the food and talking. The phone rang. My mother picked it up and then handed it to me. Everyone was in the kitchen and the clamor was louder than my caller’s voice. I had to strain to hear.
“Hello,” said the woman. “Is this Patty?” At the time I was calling myself Patty, so I said yes. I motioned to my family to keep the noise down. They got louder.
“This is Jean-Marie’s mother,” she said. I was confused. Why was my babysitter’s mother calling me?
“Yes?” I said. My mother began laughing and then my father belly-laughed at a story one of them had just told. I tried to stretch the cord around the corner of the wall into the hallway where it was slightly quieter.
The woman continued. “I have some bad news. Jean-Marie killed herself this morning.”
“Oh no!” I said over the voices floating around the corner from the kitchen. I went back into the kitchen, covered the receiver with my hand and said, “Please be quiet.”
I turned back to the phone, but my mother grabbed the cord and said, “Don’t you tell us to be quiet. This is our phone and our house. Your caller will just have to put up with the noise.”
I went back to the call. “I’m sorry about that,” I said. “And I’m very sorry about Jean-Marie.”
“I know,” the woman said. “I just thought you should know since you’re one of her best friends.”
“I am?” I thought. “Well, thank you for telling me,” I said.
After I hung up, my parents spun around and asked if I was able to hear my very-important call. I said I was.
Then they asked who was so important that a little noise would bother her?
I said that it was Jean-Marie’s mother.
“Why would Jean-Marie’s mother be calling you?” my mother asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “She said I was Jean-Marie’s friend and she had to tell me something important.”
“Jean-Marie is 16!” my mother said. “You’re 10. Why does she think that you’re friends? And what did she have to tell you that was so important?”
“She said that Jean-Marie killed herself this morning.”
I finally got the quiet I had requested, in the form of a stunned silence.
It turned out that Jean-Marie’s mother had called the wrong Patty. The other Patty, who was 16 and was Jean-Marie’s real friend, also had a last name that began with a B.
Now if that had happened to a 10-year-old on a cell phone, there would be nobody to question him or her and, ultimately, once the shock was over, offer comfort.
Parents miss out on their kids’ secret lives when everyone has his or her own phone and talks behind closed doors (and texts right out in public). Sure, as kids we used to resent being eavesdropped on, but secretly it was nice knowing that people were interested … sometimes.