Julia’s family was not the first in Elbert to get a telephone, but when they did she was amazed and even proud. It was, for her, a utility– a functional thing that connected her to important news about the family or community. You used it in an emergency. It would have been foolish and wasteful to see the device as something to enhance her social life. There was little time on a farm for such frivolity, and communities were built around the help they gave to one another and not around free time filled with mutual entertainment. Until the day that she died, an old black phone sat on its own table in the living area. Her daughters called her frequently, but she didn’t like to talk on the phone. It was still, in her mind, a device with a purpose and if her daughters wanted to talk, they should come to visit. Julia was born before there were cars, before people had phones. Her life traveled from that to watching a grainy picture of a man walking on the moon on a flickering television screen that underscored the breadth of her experience.
Cleopha was my mother. She used to ride her horse for miles out onto the eastern plains, find a tree and sit in its shade with the horse grazing nearby–surrounded by endless space, the sky stretched tight across the horizon. Once she found a magazine that had blown onto the land and she sat for hours looking at the pages of a modern life that eluded her small Colorado ways. Dreams of cities and dancing with handsome young men clung to the sound of train whistles and the almost imperceptible rumble of the rails in the distance, coaxing the edges of youthful dreams forward. Years later, when I knew her as my mother, someone snapped a photograph: a thin and stylish woman in a cocktail dress, holding a martini glass, smiling at the camera.
She bought me stationary when I was little and taught me to write thank you notes; encouraged me to write her letters when we were apart. When I moved away from home, I would sit on the floor in the hallway of my little apartment and talk to her on a phone that was connected to the wall and would not reach anywhere else. I listened patiently to her scratchy voice from a thousand miles away, as the edges of the life that I dreamed pushed me forward and the tide of her life pulled her back into the sea.
My first love and I called each other and talked on the phone for hours while I walked around the apartment with my extra long phone cord, pouring soda into a glass with the headset cradled between my head and shoulder. It was a princess phone. A phone that rang like a doorbell. I wrote him poetry in silver ink on blue paper and he told me that he had to hold it to the light in just the right way to read the words of my heart.
I was tethered to my world by phones that plugged into the wall; by stationary and stamps; by stacking stereo units proudly displayed on bookshelves made of boards and cinder blocks. I did not long for the open space of my mother’s youth and instead lusted for trips down Pacific Coast highway in the Keith’s Mercedes convertible talking to each other all the way to Santa Barbara.
When I was in my thirties the man who I worked for had a phone installed in his car and it meant that he called the office incessantly, expecting to find me at my desk doing his bidding. It was the end of extended lunches when he was away, or slipping out the door 15 minutes early all because of the damn phone in his car. It was the beginning of the unraveling. No more telephone wires tethering us to desks and walls. In the next few decades I would own computers and lap tops, begin a relationship with the internet, get an email address, purchase cell phones , dip my toes into social media and witness a progression that moved through us as we all became connected by electronic communication.
On 9/11, final calls were made, last messages spoken into voice mails, the preservation and markers of love, because of technology. The human story is all about connection and our relationship to one another. You think that a text, a tweet or a voice mail will never take the place of gazing into each other’s eyes or smiling at each others words, that touch is the balance to all of the technology. . .but those messages, those precious messages made with gadgets that had unplugged us from the wall…
Much of my life is about wanting connection, trying to tell the stories with words on a page, with whispers in the night. Thanks to Cleopha, I still love pretty stationary and hand written notes. Thanks to Julia, I’d rather visit in person than talk on the phone. And thanks to Steve Jobs I sit in the early morning hours tapping keys on a laptop that will magically send my stories into an ether meadow, waiting to be picked by someone who is also looking to connect. Oh, brave new world…