So I stuck to the old-fashioned way until, at last, one selling point grabbed me: unlimited long distance. Anywhere, anytime. No extra charge. No guilt. Long-distance charges have long been the apotheosis of guilt, of extravagant spending and self-indulgence. During the Depression, my family was one of only a few around us with a phone. We had a party line, of course, which meant that the four families who shared it each answered only after hearing its distinctive ring: one long, say, or two short. For me it was truly a party: I could gently lift the receiver and eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations. Not knowing the other parties made it all the more titillating.
Later, after I’d become a young wife, an automobile accident put me temporarily into a wheelchair. Rolling myself to the phone took time, so I persuaded a neighbor who was one of the parties on my line to pick up on my ring and explain that I was on my way. But she was also to keep the news from my mother that her pregnant daughter had been injured. When Mom called, my friend would pretend to be in my house and say, “Joan is in the bathroom. She’ll call you back.”
Mom didn’t phone that often. Calls between zones were rare back then. The admonition LONG DISTANCE was heavy with meaning. When I was a child, it meant bad news, and even after I became an adult I understood it was not intended for casual chats. You made appointments, confirmed a deal, and you did it quickly. You were terse and to the point. The postwar exodus to the suburbs added another layer of guilt. Thanks to the GI Bill, thousands of eager young families were able to buy houses that were often twenty miles or more from home. This placed them not only out of sight, but into that vast LONG-DISTANCE expanse.
The phone bills gave you away. You knew just how long you’d talked to your mother, your sister, your college friend. Without public transportation, and before the advent of the second car, we were stranded. Relaxed, spontaneous chats were a luxury we couldn’t afford. Some people set oven timers as they talked, cutting short the conversation when time ran out. When a beloved friend moved a few towns away, I invested in a phone plan that permitted toll-free calls there. My friend would phone and command, “Call me back!” Then we’d hug our phones and catch up.
Our kids left for college, and then for the wider world. When one of our sons was arrested for trespassing in a girls’ dorm (he was always a rake), he called long distance from a western jail. “They allow you one call,” he said. When the kids started living in foreign lands as exchange students, or in search of adventure, some families devised a code. When the operator said she had a person-to-person call from one of the children, the call would be declined. No money had been spent, but the message was clear: the caller had arrived safely.
Today kids and grandkids carry cell phones and check in with everyone all day long. At the beach they call home to see what’s for lunch. One grandson phones from the marina with whoops of joy: he’s caught a huge sea bass. How fantastic to get the immediate news! The news from cell phones isn’t necessarily bad. It’s all just “touching base,” fulfilling the phone company’s seductive message.
Joan Millman is a prizewinning fiction writer who assists people in writing memoirs.