When I was growing up in the 1960s, our home had a phone. It wasn't called a "land line." It was called "the telephone." It wasn't a smart phone. It was an imbecile. It didn't have call forwarding. Or call waiting. It couldn't take messages. And there was no caller ID. When the phone rang, you actually had to answer it to find out who was calling.
If you wanted to talk to a friend, you dialed her number. If she was there, she picked it up and said "Hello." If she wasn't home, or if her older sister were tying up the line, you were flat out of luck.
Sounds primitive, doesn't it?
Except for the fact that I often wish there were a single number I could dial (Dial? That dates me!) that would reliably result in a "hello" from my 24-year old son.
Tom doesn't even have a land line. If I want to reach him, I can try his cell. But it usually goes right to voicemail. I can try emailing him at one of his four hundred email addresses. Or I can text him. He responds promptly to texts.
Except when he doesn't.
How far we've come from the days when everyone in the house shared a single phone number, and calling that number was the only way to reach them. Now, everyone has multiple phone numbers, cyber-identities and email addresses. And you can't get though on any of them.
(In the course of writing this essay, I've emailed my son twice and left four messages on his voicemail. I have yet to hear back.)
When my niece's boyfriend started his freshman year at Stanford, my sister bought him a pair of sturdy new sandals and mailed them to his college mailbox. When she didn't get a "thank you," she phoned to make sure they'd arrived. He didn't answer, so she left a message. No response. She emailed him. Still nothing. Finally, she texted: "Have you checked your mailbox lately?"
Of course he hadn't. He didn't even know he had a mailbox. When he finally located it, the sandals had been sitting there for over a month. (But my sister did get a lovely thank-you note.)
Is the lesson to be learned here that in order to communicate with our twenty-first century offspring, we parents need to text? Not necessarily. Some kids text. Other's don't. My 24-year-old nephew, for instance, dislikes texting. But he'll answer his cell.
Except when he doesn't.
What we are actually required to do is figure out, through trial and error, exactly which form of communication works for each individual. And get used to the fact that nothing is going to work all the time.
Smart phones, unlike land lines, can get lost. Or misplaced. Or eaten by the Pug. They also run out of batteries. And then there's my friend's daughter, who, illegally texting at the wheel and seeing a police car pull up beside her, quickly lobbed her phone toward the floor. It landed in her travel mug of hot coffee.
This never happened with a land line.
The silver lining is that this brave new world of evasive communication works both ways. You can manage to avoid another person indefinitely. Just ignore them as they come at you via your various phone numbers and your infinite number of email addresses. Banish them from your Facebook page! Delete their texts! Block them entirely!
My friend Deb installed caller ID on her land line for the sole purpose of never having to take another call from her mother-in-law. When the phone rings, she glances at the screen. If it's an incoming call from The Wicked Witch, she grins, says, "That was the best investment I ever made." And ignores it.
I would love to return to a simpler time, when you dialed a number, listened, à la Lily Tomlin, to a couple of "ringy dingies," and then heard a welcome "hello." But that's not going to happen. Except in my dreams -- where Kennedy is still in the White house, Ed Sullivan is still on television, a first class stamp costs four cents and every home has a rotary phone.
Hanina, the 5-year-old I babysit, is an Orthodox Jew, which means his family doesn't use the phone on the Sabbath. If Hanina and his mother want to reach me on Saturday, they'll walk around the block and knock on my door. Hanina will give me a drawing he's made just for me. His mother and I might discuss next week's schedule or just enjoy a chat. As long as this kind of communication remains possible, I suppose I can adjust to the rest.
I'm not reliable when it comes to answering email, and I don't have a cell phone. But I do have a land line. So, if you want to reach me, calling me on "the telephone" is still your best bet. Like my childhood phone, it's an idiot. It doesn't have call waiting. Or call forwarding. Or caller ID. But if I'm home, I'll pick up the phone and say hello. Then we can talk.
Of course, my number is unlisted.