In which the Elegant Bastard must decide whether to cut the umbellical or stay loyal to the lies.
It started with a few friends telling me it was time I got rid of Ma.
Their blunt words hurt, but at the same time I realized that the old girl was becoming more a nuisance than anything else. She’d developed some pretty annoying habits. In recent years, for example, she’d taken to allowing unidentified sales people into the house, usually around dinnertime. As for the rest of the day, Ma just generally sat by the television, forcing us to dust around her. Whole days would go by without her making a sound. She was also getting more and more expensive to keep. But to toss her out into the trash? That seemed so heartless.
Finally, Significant Other suggested that if I didn’t want to throw her out, I could just put her back in the box she came in and stuff her in a closet. I thought about that alternative. It had its appeal. It was both decisive and yet not finally so, rather like being able to get on a plane to Chicago and then deciding half way there to have it land in New York. This way, if the break-up proved too difficult, I could always take her out again, clean her buttons and put her back. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. It really was time. Old Ma’s days were done. One quick call to Bell and the land line would be a thing of the past.
Some of you younger readers just groaned, didn’t you. Admit it; yes you did. When it dawned on you that all of this angst was about a home phone line, your inner reaction had just a touch – just the merest trace – of “wtf?”[i] to it, didn’t it. Oh, don’t try and fool me; I know! I read your Facebook pages and I can hear you telling me to just toss the damn thing out and be done with it, right?
But those of you in your 20’s and 30’s have no idea how momentous this decision really was. You never had a Ma Bell. Those of us who did lived in a different world where she held a near sacred place. She would emerge from the wall in a place she decided was convenient. Her wires lay wherever necessary, ambushing the vacuum cleaner and tripping the unwary. The phone itself – nearly always black – sat heavily on a table or bolted itself to a wall where it stared back like a complicated, overgrown and immoveable plastic spider.
It did not ring in a modulated tone. You could not mute it or set it to vibrate or make it sing to you. It would not tell you who was calling or take a message on your behalf. The phone summoned and it did so with a “Dude, get your ASS in here NOW!” kind of tone. And you went. You hauled yourself up from wherever you were and whatever you were doing – and you went. After all, it was the phone.
And it wasn’t even necessarily just your phone! If you are old enough or if you lived in a relatively small rural community even as late as the 1970’s, you might have had a party line. In that case, you shared your line with other homes and could listen in to other people’s conversations. Imagine the impact of that on three hour hormonally driven conversations between love-sick adolescents.
Yet even in big cities, that stereotypical scene in which one teen sprawled on one bed repeatedly says to another teen sprawled on another bed, “No, you hang up first.” just didn’t happen. The general rule was one phone per house. And since it was almost always in the kitchen, privacy was impossible. Some teens, of course, developed codes. If one wanted to say to another, “I want to kiss you all over”, the proper phrase was, “Did we have French homework?” Any parent hearing this exchange would know instantly what was really going on, but the code allowed for everyone to pretend that the conversation was academic.
This was the world of Ma Bell, and those who were raised there do not easily move away.
Again I can hear my younger readers. They are snickering. I hear words like “luddite” and “dinosaur” and cruelest of all, “middle age” – which, when they say it, sounds like a kingdom ruled by smurf named Mordred. Here I must protest. I have too moved with the times. I text. I tweet. I LOL and I ROTFL and I would love to TTYL[ii]. I may not be 420 friendly[iii] but I know what it means (and I know where you live!)
More, I never leave the house without my brand new companion, a lovely sleek young thing with which I have an intimate and long standing relationship. She sings, she tells me where I am, she handles my banking and Oh, she vibrates. And even on a crowded bus, we can play our little games. This being so, why did I hesitate at all about giving up so anachronistic a thing as a landline?
It has a lot to do with staying loyal to the lies we learn.
“Lies” here does not mean deliberate deceptions but necessary ones. Think of a bridge you walk across often. You do not proceed cautiously, testing each step, anticipating a collapse, planning an escape route? You stride forward, thinking of more important things: your work, the children’s futures, the newest flavour from Ben and Jerry’s. You know the bridge won’t fail. That is a necessary lie.
So it was with Ma Bell. That umbellical wire leading to the jack and from there to mysterious spaces behind the wall connected us to an unbreakable and always-faithful network we could trust. It made the world smaller and placed it in our hands. And no matter where we were, at home, in a mall, at a crowded airport or on a rain-drenched street, there was always a booth available, always a refuge where, like E.T., we could phone home.
The cell phone, for all that it nestles comfortably in my pocket, will never be the same for me. I am the wrong generation. I use it well, but it still has the capacity to amaze. I marvel at it and because I do, there is a distance between us. I can think about and fear its loss. I can resent its omnipresence. And nearby 12-year-olds are far more efficient in its use than I will ever be. To them it is the certain link to a world stretching farther than wires. They can go anywhere, anytime. That is their necessary lie and it is not the same as mine.
So Ma will remain in her accustomed spot on the occasional table. I suppose I could go cordless; I could buy a lighter, slimmer model; I could reactivate some services I long ago transferred to my cell. I could, but that really isn’t the point. She’s there as much to be seen as used. She links me to a paradigm more that to some place.
Besides, every Sunday just before noon, she rings, and I dutifully come from wherever I might be to take the call.
It will be my mother.