In honor of The Sun’s fiftieth year in print, we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “The Telephone” first ran in our January 1990 issue.
When I was sixteen, I had a landline phone in my bedroom, but I shared the number with the hair salon my mom operated out of our house. My calls were always being interrupted by people wanting to schedule haircuts or my nosy little sister eavesdropping. The only safe time to talk to my boyfriend, Matt, was late at night. I’d lie in my bed with my phone on the pillow beside me, not hanging up even if we stopped talking, even if one of us fell asleep.
Matt and I lived in different towns, so our calls were long-distance and charged a higher per-minute rate. I understood this vaguely, the way I understood that water and electricity cost money. I understood it better after one night, while I was on the phone with Matt, my dad knocked on my bedroom door and handed me a three-foot-long strip of calculator paper. He’d tallied up the charges for all my phone calls: more than three hundred dollars.
I pinned the strip of paper to my bulletin board, next to all the pictures, postcards, and awards. It took a while, but I paid my parents back the full amount.
Matt and I eventually married. That phone bill is still the best three hundred dollars I’ve ever spent.
The first time I saw my adopted son’s birth mom, she was being wheeled out of the maternity ward, shackled to her wheelchair. We weren’t allowed to speak. Three days later I sat across from her, a plexiglass window between us, the thin cord of a prison phone our only connection. She told me about her family and her hopes and wishes for her son — until the correctional officer abruptly cut us off.
Over the next six years I would put money in her prison account, and she would call and ask about our son: “Does he laugh? What makes him smile? Is he curious?” My stories seemed to keep her going. When she was released and living in a state across the country, our calls continued. She advised me on how to stand up for our Black son and how to recognize my white privilege. And she didn’t hold it against me when I asked stupid questions.
Our son is eleven now and has his own phone conversations with his birth mom. She tells him about her garden and how much she loves him, and he tells her about school and summer camp. When he wins a race or aces a school project, the first person he wants to call is her.
“Say hello to that son of mine,” my mother-in-law always says as we hang up. This is our private ritual, acknowledging that she talks more to me than she does to her own son.
For nearly forty years my mother-in-law and I have had weekly phone chats. In the beginning she would call to talk to her son, but sometimes I answered, and we just kept talking. Though she and I have different politics, interests, and religious beliefs, I treasure the time we spend together on the phone.
My own son is married, and he and I have frequent phone conversations. Before hanging up recently, I told him to give my love to his wife. It occurred to me that she and I might never develop the accidental relationship I enjoy with my mother-in-law, and for one simple reason: my daughter-in-law has her own phone.
It was 1957 and we lived on the edge of a small, quiet Wisconsin town of 307 persons. I hadn’t started school yet and had little contact with the world outside of the village and the fields surrounding it. Then one day the telephone came to our house. It was large and black and had a handle on the side. One crank on the handle and Mrs. Brown, the operator, came on the line saying, “Hello, who do you want to talk to?” We would say, “The Zwickeys,” or, “John’s store,” or, “The Nelsons,” and she would plug us in to the switchboard to make the connection. Then, of course, she would more or less listen in so she could disconnect us when we were finished. There were several families on our line, and we each had a different ring. Ours was a long and a short; the Zwickeys’ was two shorts and a long. It was obvious when someone besides Mrs. Brown was on the line listening, because then the line had a funny hollow sound. In such a small town, everyone knew everyone else’s business. The phones just made it easier and a bit quicker.
We thought of the telephone in those days as something between luxury and necessity. When the coal-burning trains that roared across the prairie started a fire at night, or when someone was hurt, the phone was worth its weight in gold. If it rang after bedtime, everyone on the line picked up the receivers, just in case. Those first few years it never rang often enough to be a nuisance.
For years Mrs. Brown talked to us almost daily, yet I never met her. After endless requests, my mother finally took my brother and me to Mrs. Brown’s house to see what she did to make the phones work. She lived in town in a small brown tar-paper house with the shades drawn behind old lace curtains. The switchboard, where all the magic was worked, was right in the living room! It was about three feet square and sat on a small table. There were many thick black cables sticking out of the several dozen holes in the board. Each hole was someone’s phone line! Mrs. Brown spun around on her high wooden rolling chair whenever the board jangled, and talked to everywhere in the world from her dim, small living room. I never saw that room again. After a few years, we got a new blue phone with a rotary dial, and Mrs. Brown was out of business. Even then, as a child, I had a faint, uneasy sense of loss.
When I moved out on my own, I kept my telephone under a pillow, having stuffed its bell clappers with tissue paper to dull the sound. The magic was gone. The phone was just one more thing telling me what to do: Answer me! Of course, I ran to it every time it rang. With effort, it finally became easier to answer it at a reasonable speed — no need to knock over lamps to get there on the first ring. Still, I leapt up from anything that had my previous attention, feeling stupid for doing so. One day the phone rang and I didn’t pick it up. It felt great; I stared it down until it went silent. I don’t know why it took me so long to remember that the telephone was a tool, not an authority figure, but I slowly overcame what had become an almost instinctive response to run when it rang.
Now, thirty years and thousands of calls since that first black crank phone, I look at the new touch-tone phone on the table. It will never hold the excitement and wonder of that first phone, but sometimes it still seems somewhat magical as it sits quietly on the end of a slender cord, full of possibilities.
For twenty years I worked on call as a medical social worker for people in crisis. When I retired, I craved simplicity and wanted to drop off the grid. With my backpack and hiking boots, I traveled to remote villages and jungle communities on other continents. My spirit healed in those isolated places, far away from phones and computers. Then, in my seventies, I met Bud.
Bud was kind and generous, and he loved all things technical. He had flat-screen TVs, gadgets that turned on lights or made ice, an automatic feeder for raccoons, and a programmable irrigation system. He wanted to buy me a smartphone, but I resisted. The idea of being available at any time, to anyone, felt too much like the job I was still recovering from.
When Bud had a heart attack, I sat in the hospital waiting room frantically trying to figure out how to use his phone. The screen was full of strange icons. I pressed a few until I was connected with his son. Within thirty minutes I was surrounded by his family.
Bud recovered, and when we moved in together, I gave in to his love of electronics. There was no need for night-lights in our house because everything glowed: from the electronic dog door and the kitchen appliances, to the surge protectors and the printer. I even bought a smartphone.
We had seven years together. Now that Bud has died, I rarely carry that phone anymore, but I do sometimes listen to a voice mail he left me. In his twangy North Carolina accent he tells me about a cat he has rescued from a wildfire and is driving to the vet. He sounds so happy. As always, he forgets to hang up. I can hear him whistle as he drives, stopping now and then to say something reassuring to the cat.
Santa Rosa, California
I was in West Berlin during the winter of 1960 when a friend told me that I could call my parents in the United States for an unlimited amount of time for only $1.25. I just had to place the call through an operator at an East Berlin post office. It was risky, though. My U.S. passport would certainly get me into East Berlin, but there was no guarantee it would get me out. As tensions between East and West rose and fell, border crossings could suddenly close. Still, I missed my parents and wanted to hear their voices, so on Christmas Day I decided to take the chance and phone them. I would take the train, make the call, and come right back.
Twelve hours later I was still sitting in the post office, waiting for my call to go through. I looked out the door at the rubble that was East Berlin while my imagination conjured worst-case scenarios: Had the border closed? Were the Stasi watching me on hidden cameras? Just then an elderly gentleman entered, brushed fresh snow off his coat, and sat down next to me. Excited and surprised to learn that I was an American, he spent hours chatting with me about how hard life was under the Communists. I worried we would be interrogated by the secret police for the time we were spending together, but he assured me we wouldn’t. They were incompetent, he said, and he was not afraid of them.
When the operator finally motioned that my call was being put through, I went into the small booth and picked up the receiver. I could hear the connections being made as the operators passed the call from country to country, station to station. It was the middle of the night in Boulder, Colorado, when my mother answered the phone and yelled to my father, “Clay, come quickly! Larry’s calling from East Germany.” It was wonderful to hear them. After we said our goodbyes, I ran to the subway station, boarded a train, and passed without incident into the glittering, modern world of West Berlin.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
In the 1970s there was a series of lawsuits against AT&T, accusing the company of classifying jobs based on gender. In response, an executive came into the telephone-operator office where I worked and asked if any of us women would like to apply for an “outside job,” the kind that was typically reserved for men. I volunteered.
Many people — men and women — washed out of the training program. Their knees became swollen, or they couldn’t haul a bucket of heavy tools up a rope after climbing the pole. There was also fear of heights, which many didn’t realize they had until they were twenty-five feet up with only half-inch metal spikes holding them on.
After four weeks of tests and physicals, I qualified for a telephone-installer position. For the most part, the other women and I were welcomed into the crew, though there was some pushback from the male installers. And sometimes a boss would say something like “Darling, come sit on my lap and tell me about your day.” And when I would pull up to a job site in my work van, many customers would peek over my shoulder and ask, “Where’s the man?”
When storms brought trees down on lines, we felt a responsibility to get our customers reconnected quickly. People depended on those old copper phone lines as their link to the rest of the world.
I worked “outside” for twenty years, not just connecting phone lines, but also connecting with people. Not all of them were nice. One time a customer’s house was so big I took a string with me into the crawl space, because I feared I wouldn’t find my way back out. It was a hot day, and I ran out of water. When I asked the customer if I could have a glass, he told me the hose was outside.
Even though I was just there to put in a phone jack, customers sometimes treated me like a therapist. I would be in an exquisite house with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the homeowner, just back from her tennis lesson, would be near tears telling me about her philandering husband or how her son was hooked on heroin. Those experiences made me realize the truth of that old cliché: money does not buy happiness.
I was terrified of the phone when I was growing up. Born with profound hearing loss, I could only understand a small percentage of what the person on the other end said, even with my hearing aids. I misunderstood boys’ attempts to flirt, bombed job interviews, and mixed up directions and wire-transfer numbers.
As technology changed, so did my relationship with the phone. Text messaging made it easy to engage with friends, and on video calls American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters could sign what the other caller was saying while I responded with my own voice. I felt more included in what was being said around me.
At thirty-three I decided to get a cochlear implant. Following the surgery, I wasn’t sure if I’d still need the extra computer screen at work to see the ASL interpreters. The disability-resource coordinator came to my office and suggested an experiment: he would walk down the hallway and call me on the phone. I answered, and for the first time in my life I could clearly hear someone on the phone. Giddy, I asked him to give me his contact information. Then I repeated back what I’d heard. I got every single word and number correct.
My mother was bedridden by migraines in the winter of 1978. While I was at school, she often watched televangelist Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. One day she called the number on the TV screen, prayed with the woman on the other end, and was healed. The headaches were gone. When I got home, she was up and making dinner. Within a week the Christian television station had sent an Assemblies of God pastor to our home, and we’d joined a Pentecostal church.
Around this same time my mother became a member of the local food co-op, which required her to work a volunteer position. On Monday nights she called ten other members and took their bulk orders. My mother is an extrovert, and those Monday-night calls always went beyond collecting orders. She spent hours visiting with the other women, hearing about their troubles, and offering support. She started to refer to it as her “ministry.”
The next summer our congregation decided to go door-to-door to introduce people to our church and spread the Good News. I was fourteen and refused to participate. Even the thought of it mortified me. We had always scorned the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to our door. My mother was undeterred, however, and came home from her first door-knocking session very excited. She told me how open people had been, inviting her inside and sharing their love for Jesus. One stop stood out in particular: As soon as my mother started speaking, the woman who’d answered the door said, “Linda?” She belonged to the co-op and had recognized my mother’s voice from those Monday-night calls. The woman invited my mother in and accepted Jesus as her personal savior.
St. Joseph, Minnesota
My iphone, with its thin black case and cracked screen, commanded my full attention as I swiped through other people’s lives. I knew all this time on social media was bad for me, but I couldn’t stop. I tapped to watch an old friend’s idealized Instagram reel about her entrepreneurial art career. I scrolled through a beautiful couple’s photo shoot on a beach with sand so white I mistook it for snow. I admired the perfect legs and pointed feet of a professional dancer. Afterward I felt empty. But still I would continue.
At midnight I told myself I would look for just one moment more, and before I knew it, I had mindlessly purchased an app promising peace and better breathing. I forgot about the purchase until seven days later, when I found the bill in my e-mail inbox.
All this changed recently after I learned that, at thirty-two years old, I have aggressive, nonhereditary cancer. I no longer cling to my phone. Every time it rings or dings, I shudder, because its urgent messages are never good news. That once-addicting window of swirling lights has become a coffin in my pocket.
Maybe now that I’m dying of cancer, I’ll finally read a book, one with pages.
Hanover, New Hampshire
In this Texas prison we call it the blue phone. It looks like the pay phones that used to be outside every gas station in America. Before each call you have to register your voice by saying your name and “Texas Department of Criminal Justice.” It’s not easy while everyone else in the dayroom is yelling and the TVs are on full blast.
You get thirty minutes per call. Usually there is someone in line behind you, so you get only one call, unless you want to risk a fight. Thirty minutes isn’t enough. It’s not enough time to tell your mom how sorry you are for squandering every opportunity she gave you. It’s not enough time to reconnect with your dad before he has surgery to remove a tumor. It’s not enough time to listen to your sister talk about her upcoming wedding — a celebration you can’t attend because of the poor choices you’ve made.
How do you tell your family that you’ve been diagnosed with leukemia while someone is slamming dominoes on a metal table? What does my daughter think when I talk to her with all that chaos in the background? Is what I’m telling her about making good decisions and staying away from drugs and drinking and destructive behavior registering? How can I possibly convey my remorse, love, and hope through a Texas-state-prison phone? I keep trying, one call at a time.
Tennessee Colony, Texas
When I was twelve, in 1963, my mom decided I was old enough to stay home with my younger sister while she went to the supermarket. Before she left, our mom gave us orders: “Don’t touch the stove, and if anyone calls, don’t say you’re alone. Tell them I’m busy and take a message.”
My sister and I entertained ourselves by watching TV and dancing to music on our portable record player. I was copying cartoons from the comics section of the newspaper when the phone rang. “Is your mother there?” a woman asked. I asked to take a message. “This is Astoria General Hospital,” the woman said. “Your father has been in an accident.”
My dad was a carpenter at Con Edison, the New York City power company. Anything could have happened to him. I ran to the front windows of the apartment and saw my mom outside, talking with the neighbors. “Daddy’s had an accident!” I yelled to her. My mother raced to the hospital while my sister and I stayed with a neighbor. We walked to a luncheonette at the end of our block, and my sister ate a bowl of ice cream. I slumped in my chair, unable to comprehend what was happening. I was so scared, I thought I would vomit.
Later I was sitting on the stoop when I heard one of our neighbors say, “Frank! What are you doing here?” I turned and saw my dad walking up the street. I ran to him and told him about the call. He gave a little laugh. “The way everyone was staring, I thought my fly was open,” he said.
He’d never even been in the hospital. Mom, however, needed bandages for a scrape on her leg, because she fell on some steps while racing to the ER. She told us later that, once they’d figured out Dad wasn’t there, the nurse said they’d been getting a lot of prank-call victims coming in looking for loved ones.
We soon changed to an unlisted number.
Bogota, New Jersey
After my son was born, it was difficult to maintain a fulfilling social life. I was just regaining that piece of myself when I found out I was pregnant with my second child. Though I was thrilled to be a mother again, I wanted to soak up as much time with friends as I could before my due date.
Then the world stopped. It was March 2020. To minimize the spread of COVID-19, my office closed, my plans to visit far-flung friends were canceled, and I went to all my prenatal appointments alone. My husband, who’d been at every appointment during my first pregnancy, had to wait in the parking lot.
Stuck at home with my two-year-old for company, I became deeply depressed. I’d been mentally preparing for the isolation that would come once I had a newborn, but I hadn’t reckoned on the additional isolation of the pandemic. My already-small world grew smaller. I missed my friends, my family, and my identity as an individual outside of my home.
I found myself on my phone more and more — scrolling social media, texting, and video chatting with friends. Slowly I began to feel less alone. Instead of being a distraction or a nuisance, my phone connected me to the outside world. Friendships old and new flourished. I swapped recipes and book recommendations with strangers online, and I talked with my mom each night after my son fell asleep.
After we brought our new daughter home, there wasn’t a baby shower or a steady stream of admiring family members, but I didn’t feel totally alone. I had friends in my pocket, in my purse, and on my nightstand.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I knew my husband took prescription opiates for a traumatic brain injury. I was also aware he mixed alcohol with Xanax. And I will never forget the night he gave himself a seizure by shooting coke into his veins while the kids were awake upstairs. But I had no idea he’d ever used heroin — until he died of an overdose.
The police had taken my husband’s phone, and after a couple of months we were anxious to get it back. The kids wanted to see the pictures he had of them, to feel connected in some way to their dad. I was eager to see what clues I could find to explain this tragedy. I thought surely the police would be able to use his phone to find out who’d sold him the heroin. But they didn’t find anything — no texts seeking drugs, no contacts or leads, no sense of whether the overdose was purposeful or accidental.
What the phone did hold, though, was many secrets. I was shocked to see how many sex-for-sale links and robo-offers for paid “personal attention” he had responded to. He’d invented an elaborate lie about being a doctor while trying to schedule sex with a hooker. He’d sent a photo of his erect cock to someone he’d met through Craigslist. And he’d flirted with women on dating apps by seeking sympathy about his “dead” wife. All these betrayals were cataloged and time-stamped. I shook and cried and screamed as I cleared all the damning evidence before handing the phone over to our kids, so they could reminisce and grieve their dad.
Our smartphones chronicle our lives. After someone’s death, they can reveal more than we want to see and explain far too little.
Stranded on the other side of town from where I lived, I made my way to a row of pay phones and fished in my pockets for coins but found none. I remembered seeing people make collect calls in movies, so I decided to try it. A polite operator answered, and after a brief exchange I heard the line ringing and my dad pick up.
“Wei?” he said, the Taiwanese equivalent of Hello. My dad had lived in the United States for more than ten years but had not learned much English. Trying to speak it with anyone shamed and frustrated him, so he usually pushed that responsibility to my mom or me.
“Will you accept a collect call from your son, Steven?” the operator asked.
“He is not home. Steven is not home. Call back,” my dad said with a nervous laugh. Unshaken, the operator explained slowly that I was already on the phone and asked again if he would accept the charges for the collect call.
“Ba-ba, it’s me. I’m the one calling you,” I said in Taiwanese, not sure if he could hear me.
“What? Steven! Who is that American woman speaking? Why are you both on the phone?” came the response in Taiwanese.
“You can’t talk with each other until your father accepts the charges,” the operator said. “Sir, will you accept this collect call from Steven?”
My dad went silent when he realized the woman was speaking to him again. The operator repeated her question. Still my dad did not respond. He was likely waiting for me to translate for him and resolve this stressful situation. I spoke slowly in English, so both he and the operator could understand: “Dad, listen. Just say yes. Say yes, you accept the call.”
A torrent of Taiwanese from my dad followed. I felt my cheeks get hot. “Ba-ba!” I shouted. “I can’t get home. I need you to say yes, then we can talk. I need you to say yes to the woman on the call. Please listen. Just say yes.”
My dad was asking all sorts of questions now, but he did not say yes. The operator tried to interrupt him, but my dad aimed all his words at me. Then silence.
“I’m sorry. The two of you were just talking so much. I had to disconnect him. I’m sorry,” the operator said.
I hung up the phone, feeling all my past anger and frustration toward my dad bubble up. He had such high expectations for me, and here he was, unable even to accept a collect call.
After a few minutes I made another collect call, to a friend this time, who came, picked me up, and dropped me off at home. When I entered the house, my dad was sitting at the dining table.
“You’re home late,” he said. “What was that phone call about?”
Long Beach, California
As a child I often had trouble falling asleep. Though I couldn’t have named it then, I now realize the problem was loneliness. To ease my discomfort, I invented an invisible telephone, the old-fashioned kind: heavy and black and attached to the wall beside my bed. When I lifted the receiver, the operator would ask, “How may I direct your call?”
“God, please,” I’d say.
Soon I would hear the phone ringing. I imagined God at a desk covered in dozens, even hundreds of rotary phones, all ringing at once, my line indistinguishable from the rest. God never answered my imaginary calls — I always fell asleep before he got to me — but while I waited, I rehearsed what I would say to him: I would tell him about being a good girl, riding the bus to my rural school, reading above my grade level, and learning to knit from my neighbor. I didn’t plan on telling God about the bullies, but maybe I would have gotten to that, too.
I used to think of the invisible phone as embarrassing evidence of my weirdness. Now I’m proud that, at the age of seven, I devised a way to feel less alone.
My grandmother likes to tell the story of the day I was born. It was 1975 at a hospital in central New York. My mother was in labor all night while a snowstorm raged outside. My grandmother slept upright in a hospital chair at my mother’s side, rosary beads hanging from her wrist.
My grandmother had known poverty from an early age, having grown up in a Catholic orphanage. Then she’d married my grandfather, who, just before he died, had lost most of their savings gambling in Atlantic City.
Minutes after I was born, my grandmother went to a pay phone to deliver the good news to my father, who’d been working. After she hung up, hundreds of nickels and dimes came pouring out of the coin return, as if she’d hit the jackpot. There were few people around because of the storm. So, taking it as a blessing, she opened her purse and let the coins pour in.
It was more money than she had seen in a long time. She said it came from my grandpa, to help establish my college fund.
Years ago I took an evening class at our local college. That’s where I met Suzie. Our relationship progressed rapidly from casual acquaintances, to friends, to friends with benefits. We fell into a pattern where I would go to her apartment a couple of times a week for dinner and some recreational sex. I would always go home immediately afterward because she had to get up early for work.
One evening I got a phone call from Suzie, who said, “That was so much fun this morning. I’ve never done that before.”
I felt like I was missing something. “What did we do this morning?”
“You know — on the phone? . . . Quit fucking around and tell me that was you.”
After I assured her that it definitely had not been me on the phone, she told me about the call: She was asleep. The phone rang. She answered it, and a sexy male voice said, Thank you for last night. She assumed it was me.
“It got kinky,” she said.
Suzie’s mystery phone suitor called again a few days later and apologized for taking advantage of her when she was half asleep. They talked for a while, and he asked if he could call again.
Suzie and I continued to get together occasionally, and she had a call with Phone Guy most mornings. Sometimes they just chatted, and other times they got off together. I had no problem with the arrangement, as I still got to enjoy the company of an open-minded, sexually liberated, consenting adult. In fact, when Phone Guy asked if he could call sometime when I was there, I agreed, and we arranged a little phone fun one morning. Just the three of us and Ma Bell.
I had just reached the door to the building where I taught a nine o’clock class, when I realized I had left my phone at home. A wave of panic swept over me. It was too late to go back and get it. Class started in ten minutes, and I had scolded my students only last week about not being on time. I had office hours and meetings for the rest of the day and wouldn’t be able to leave campus until five. Suppose there was a family emergency? Would my girlfriend think I was with another woman if I didn’t answer her calls? What if the dean wanted to talk to me about my application for a full-time appointment? I was barely able to concentrate on teaching as I kept robotically patting the empty shirt pocket where my phone should have been.
Finally class ended, and I climbed the stairs to my office, hoping I might be able to sneak out for a few minutes. But no. A line of students had beaten me there. The 10 AM department meeting dragged on for an interminable two hours, during which I was completely distracted. At lunchtime I walked to the cafeteria. It was spring. The foliage was blooming, birds were singing, squirrels were cavorting, and students were outside enjoying the warm weather. As I slowed my pace and took in my surroundings, I realized I didn’t normally notice beautiful days like this one. I’m always on my phone.
My mother used to call me as many as fifteen times a day. I would ignore the ring and let my answering machine pick up. Then, when I was preparing dinner or grading papers, I would listen to her messages in the background. They were all pretty much the same: I miss you. What are you doing? When are you coming to visit me?
With each call she had a way of escalating her emotions, so that by the eighth or ninth message, there was hysteria in her voice, and accusation: I was a bad daughter. I thought only of myself. She was sick. She needed me. How could I be so cruel? By the last call, she would sound exhausted and resigned, like a child who had cried herself out and now wanted only to sleep.
Years later my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I moved to live near her. On the day of her funeral I replayed all of her messages. Her voice was beautiful to me then: dramatic, funny, honest. Human. Every now and then I still play that cassette of her messages, giving her my full attention.
Jamie Cat Callan
Valatie, New York
In 1976 I lived in New York City and worked in Columbia University’s public-information office. One morning in February there was an accident on the Harlem River involving several members of Columbia’s rowing crew: a shell (racing boat) had sunk in the icy waters, and one of the oarsmen had drowned.
Expecting calls from the press, my boss wrote a statement that the office secretary and I had to read to anyone who called wanting information about the accident. We were not allowed to say anything else. The statement ended with “The name of the victim is being withheld pending notification of next of kin.” I said those words so many times that morning that they stopped meaning anything to me.
Every reporter who called wanted something extra, some detail that no one else had so that they could scoop the others. They pushed me for more information until I hung up on them, sometimes in midsentence. But one call was different. The man didn’t identify himself or offer any press affiliation. He just quietly said, “Tell me the name of the boy who died.” As he waited for an answer, I launched into the statement: “I’m sorry, sir. The name of the victim is being withheld pending notification of—”
“My son is a rower. He was out on the river this morning. I’m begging you to tell me if he’s dead.”
I had no idea what to do. This was not the sort of call I had been getting. I asked the man if I could put him on hold while I got my boss, but he exploded: “Don’t put me on hold! Not again. I’ve called his dorm, the rowing office, even the president’s office, for God’s sake. They all put me on hold. The sports-information office transferred me to you.” There was a pause. Then he said, “You do know his name, don’t you?”
My silence told him that I did. “I can’t tell you. I’ll be in trouble. Please let me get my boss.”
“Wait,” he said. “I know you don’t want to disobey your boss, so I’ll tell you what we’ll do. I’ll say my son’s name, and you just say yes or no. OK? That way you won’t really be telling. Just yes or no, that’s it. Please.”
I could hear someone else drawing a shaky breath on an extension — a woman, I thought — and at that moment I understood I was about to tell these parents if their son was ever coming home again. I was just twenty-three years old. The story I’d been stonewalling reporters on all morning had become real. A real boy had died, and his real parents didn’t know yet. I should have put the phone down and gone to get my boss, but I couldn’t. So I whispered, “What’s his name?”
His mother said it first, and the father echoed her a beat behind. As soon as I heard it, I shouted, “No, No! That’s not the name!” I was high on relief. “It wasn’t him!” My boss put a disapproving finger to his lips, but I barely noticed.
“Thank you,” the father said as he began to cry.
After I hung up, feeling shaky, I went into my boss’s office to tell him I wasn’t going to answer the phone again that day. That’s when he told me: the actual boy’s parents had been notified.
Albany, New York
During the six years that I was married to my first husband, I shut out most of my family. They called a lot, because they knew how miserable I was, but I was young and didn’t want to admit that I had made a mistake. Being right was more important to me than being happy. So I toughed it out and usually refused to pick up the phone.
I took my grandmother’s calls, though. She let me act as if everything were fine, even though she knew I was faking it. She would ask what we’d been up to, how my job was going, and what I’d been cooking. We’d talk about politics and her bridge games, and she would invite me to come visit and offer me money when she knew I needed it. Our conversations always ended with her saying, “Love you, babe.”
I could say as much or as little as I wanted because she had no agenda except to talk and to hear my voice. Her unconditional love got me through six rough years. I pretended I was fine for as long as I could, and when I finally told her I was leaving my husband, she replied, “I know, babe. Of course you are.”
She lived just long enough to see me marry a second time and bring her first great-grandchild into the world.
We didn’t have a telephone when my mother was dying. We were in the Peace Corps, living on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. That didn’t stop my father from trying to call me, though. He dialed the emergency number that all responsible Peace Corps volunteers give their families before heading overseas. It rings a phone somewhere in Washington, D.C. Someone in D.C. then dials the number of the Peace Corps director in the volunteer’s country.
Our director lived on a different island — the main island, where a lot of people had telephones. But on our island only the tourist hotels had phones. Tim, the director, dialed the number of the hotel closest to where we lived. Our island had very little motor-vehicle traffic, but it did have taxis to carry the tourists to the hotels. So the owner of the hotel, who answered the phone when Tim called, found a snoozing taxi driver outside and sent him up to our house. “Just go to the Americans’ house,” she told him, and he knew right where to go. Because of this chain of events, I was able to get the news of my mother’s imminent death directly from another human being, even if he was a stranger, instead of through some piece of crackling plastic.
It took several days to get back to my hometown because airplanes came in and out of that country only a couple of times a week. My mother died while I was in transit. But I didn’t need a telephone to tell me it had happened. My dreams, the night she died, communicated to me much more clearly than a piece of plastic ever could. Mom was gone.
In the 1950s my family shared a party line with three other households. Our parents drilled it into my siblings and me that phones were for emergencies or important calls only. We were allowed to call friends to invite them to our house or to get a homework assignment, but we were not allowed to chat. No call should take longer than two minutes. If the line was in use when we needed to make a call, we were to quietly replace the receiver and try again in a couple of minutes. And if we heard anyone check for an open line while we were talking, we were to end our call as quickly as possible.
One neighbor we shared our party line with did not adhere to any of these rules. We called her the Dragon. She would talk with her daughter twice a day for at least an hour and also had long, rambling conversations with her friends. The Dragon’s only rule was that all adult calls were important, whereas calls children made were inconsequential. In response to our numerous complaints, our parents said that if there were ever an emergency, we should just pick up the phone and say, “Excuse me, but I need to make an emergency call.”
One day the party-line situation came to a head. Our parents were out of the house, and my sister and I were watching our two younger siblings when our four-year-old brother began coughing and wheezing. My sister took his temperature while I picked up the phone to call the family doctor, but the Dragon was talking. I hung up, waited two minutes, and tried again. She was still on. Frantically I picked up a third time, only to hear her say, “You kids stop picking up the phone and listening in on my call!” I apologized and said we had a medical emergency and needed to call the doctor right away, but the Dragon didn’t believe me and threatened to call the police on me for pulling a prank.
The only thing left to do was to bundle up our sick brother and younger sister, put them in the Radio Flyer wagon, and pull them to the doctor’s office, a little over a half mile away. So that’s what we did.
The doctor diagnosed my brother with croup, gave him an injection, and wrote a prescription for our parents to fill. He praised us for taking prompt action but wondered why we hadn’t called first.
When our parents got home and heard what had happened, my father tried to call the doctor for a full explanation. The Dragon, of course, was on the line again.
The next day Dad stopped at the telephone-company office on his way to work and paid the extra fee for a private line. The switch was accomplished in a matter of days. But my parents continued to insist that phones were for urgent business only. They maintained this policy even after my siblings and I went away to college. While other mothers complained if their children called home only once a week, my mom would hear my voice and ask, “What’s wrong? Why are you calling?”
Mary Elizabeth Lang
My mom and I only do video calls now. I wear my hair down, because it helps her recognize me. I see her stare out the window at the empty bird feeder. She tells me she’s happy. After describing how delicious her English muffin was, she chirps, “I have no complaints.”
It wasn’t always like this. Before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my mom hated talking on the phone. She would ask me what was new, and no matter what I said — an idle mention of the recent rain or a proud announcement of a promotion at work — she’d invariably reply, “So nothing much, then,” and end the call with “Well, no news is good news.” When I got engaged, I hesitated even to tell her, preferring to share my excitement with people who would express happiness for me. The only time I could elicit more than a few words from my mom on the phone was if I asked about a recent movie she had seen. Her lack of interest in the lives of her children was so profound that it became a running joke among my siblings and me.
I imagine that my mom’s caregivers think our loving exchanges are how we’ve always communicated. Mom listens intently as I tell her about the weather, a recent bike ride, or a race that one of her grandchildren won. She comments on all of it, happy to hear that I am well. After ten minutes I see her eyes start to close, and her caregiver announces that it’s nap time: “Blow your daughter a kiss goodbye.” My mom enthusiastically obeys.
Rossland, British Columbia
Shortly after I graduated from college, I was hired by a staffing agency. An unanticipated part of my job included finding new clients for the agency through cold-calling. Like most people my age, I communicated mainly by text. The very idea of calling strangers terrified me. The reality wasn’t much better. I had to go through a list of several hundred prospects a week. Most companies just gave me the mailing address of their human-resources department so I could send an information packet. Several put me through to a polite but uninterested representative. A few forwarded me to someone who seemed intent on insulting my intelligence. I distinctly recall one person telling me I was an idiot. I was sweaty and stressed the entire workday, and when my boss told me that he had to lay off either me or the other account manager, I told him bluntly that I would leave.
I worked various part-time jobs until I went back to school and got my master’s in education. I was teaching high school during the first months of the pandemic. That spring the school administrators required teachers to call the parent or guardian of each student to discuss final grades. Sometimes that call was a chance to connect with a family. Other times it was a terrible window into a student’s home life. Most people were friendly, but several were rude or downright mean. Every student required a separate phone call for each of their classes, which meant that families with more than one child at the school received twelve or even sixteen calls from teachers. We were not allowed to text or e-mail, and we were supposed to keep calling until we spoke to a human. It was like cold-calling all over again.
Asheville, North Carolina
On school nights I wasn’t allowed to receive calls after nine, especially from boys. So I found a way to take calls from my boyfriend in secret: Each night just before ten, when I knew my parents had fallen asleep, I would crouch next to my bed, dial the number of a local movie theater, and listen to the recording of the showtimes on a loop until I heard the call-waiting beep. Then I’d click over to answer my boyfriend’s scheduled call without the phone ever ringing.
I sometimes wonder how many people got a busy signal trying to get through to the theater. If they’d ever been in love, they would understand.