Sparked by Words

I Remember It Well

My parents, especially my mother, told me stories about their families when I was growing up. Stories about them when they were growing up, and stories about their own parents and extended family.

I wish I’d listened better. I wish I’d remembered more. I wish could now ask them if I’ve remembered correctly and to fill in the details. How ironic that just as I wanted to know more about who they were before I’d ever met them, they were both gone.

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My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease ten years ago, though I’d figured it out at least four years previous to her physician’s declaration. Six years ago my father died, and it became necessary to have my mom placed in a memory care residence. For the next eighteen months, as my mother and I struggled to construct an entirely new relationship based on her awareness of her illness, her widowhood, and my new position as her durable power of attorney, I also tried to help her resurrect her life’s memories. My father is gone in fact; my mother now lives with a brain so fractured that she cannot remember anything that happened even one minute before. My opportunity to question her about her childhood is long past.

Most of us know ourselves through our direct memories of the events that impressed us as we grew up as well as through the stories that other people tell about us. At dinner this past weekend, I told a sweet, funny story about our son to his children. Our son didn’t recall the event from his own personal memory, as he would have been too young to have it impressed upon his experience memory. But he’d heard the story before and remembered earlier tellings. No matter how many times I tell him this story, I can’t force the original incident into his own memory for him, I can only reinforce that he’s heard me tell it before.

As my adult children age and my grandchildren grow up, I realize the old family stories only I know are going to be lost. In fact, the incidents my parents told me so long ago are glimpses into lives so distant that their lifestyle is recognized as being archaic and quaint. My grandkids, for instance, can’t imagine a time when everyone didn’t carry a cell phone. I’m not even certain when my parents’ parents would have gotten the first phones in their homes, but it’s a safe  bet my parents would have ecstatically celebrated those old phones getting installed into their childhood homes when they were very young. I can only guess about the telephones, however, because neither of them ever told me about a time when their families might not have had a home telephone. In fact, it’s very possible that both of my parents had telephones in their homes even before they were born. I know this because I looked up the development of the telephone on the Internet and discovered that phones were relatively common household appliances in the 1930’s when both my parents were kids.

I remember from personal experience the telephones that were installed in our home in Trenton, New Jersey in 1954 because no one else was fortunate enough to have six phones with their own phone numbers. We were a very unique family.

My dad was a physician, just starting his first private practice after two years of internship in Hawaii and Alabama. We’d “come home” to Trenton where both parents had all their family members living nearby. My dad’s conducted his first medical practice in a section of our two-story Dutch Colonial house, converted to waiting, x-ray, and examining rooms, and my dad’s office. We needed two phones because one had to be dedicated to his medical practice, but the technology for putting more than one phone number on one device didn’t yet exist. In our kitchen, the two phones sat side by side, one for our family and one for my dad’s practice so patients could reach him in an emergency any time of day or night, 365 days a year. Also for non-emergencies, but that’s another story. The double telephone system was also installed in my parents’ upstairs bedroom and of course in the medical office.

I’m the only person left who remembers the wonderful day those phones were installed. My brother was too young to know how extraordinary our situation was, my sister wasn’t yet born. With my father gone and my mother’s disease having long savaged her memory, only I recall the splendor of those two machines. None of the other kids at school had two telephones in their homes, plugged in side by side, with two different phone numbers, and in fact, we had six! I memorized the two phone numbers, one for our family of course, and one for my dad’s medical office, which I was never supposed to use unless no other adult was near enough to answer. I can no longer remember the numbers but they were something like: MA (for Maple) 2-5873. Some folks still had party lines, phone lines they shared with neighbors, where they could rudely listen in to someone else’s phone conversation and save a few bucks of monthly phone service for the risk of no privacy.

The few times I answered my dad’s office line, I used the professional voice and demeanor I’d practiced for just such an occasion, “Hello, this is Dr. Bonin’s office, can I help you?” I learned to write messages from people in distress, to get their names spelled correctly, to copy down their phone numbers, and to promise them I’d have my dad call them as soon as he came home. Big stuff for a six-year-old. Strut worthy. I saved lives. OK, maybe not, but I saved messages from patients.

Many families today don’t even have a land line. Instead, every member of the family has a cell phone with more technical intelligence than the space ship, Explorer 1, launched on January 31, 1958 from Cape Canaveral. In the mid 1970s, the early days of mobile phones, owners looked exclusive walking around holding devices about the size of a quart milk box, yakking important information about plane flights and dry cleaning. Then phones became as small as a credit card, easily concealed and imparting status to folks planning dinner dates. Now they’re larger again but no thicker than a knife blade, and loaded with enough technology to sustain a computer, music, shopping, games, GPS,  movies, TV, personal calendar, Internet access, reading apps, a camera, and a – wait for it – cell phone. Sixty years after the installation of the six amazing, modern phones in our home, and today most people no longer need anything so clumsy and old fashioned. Archaic and quaint in less than a hundred years. Of course, no one talks on their phones anymore – they text. Too often while driving and ignoring present company.

Here it is – my first memoir, written down for grandkids, friends, and total strangers, now made laughing friends.

In my next post I’ll tell about the newest novel I’m writing, inspired by my parents’ memories.

I want to thank Irene A Waters for describing the place of memory in our lives. You can read about her on her blog, Reflections and Nightmares, https://irenewaters19.com/

I also want to thank Judith Westerfield for helping me come to terms with my memories. You can find her on her blog, The HeART of Spirituality!  http://judywesterfield.wordpress.com

 

Old phone image courtesy Public Domain images. clipartlord.com

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Comments on: "I Remember It Well" (41)

  1. Linda Kirsch said:

    I smiled all the way through this. When I was 13 my aunt bought me a pink telephone with my own phone number. Never mind that my parents would from then on have to pay that phone bill. I think I’ve never told that vignette to my children or grandchildren.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So poignant, Sharon.

    My mother who suffered a lot of trauma in her childhood dealt with it by detaching from it. She has a huge collection of memories in her repository and loves sharing them but it’s from a detached place as if she were telling about another scared little girl. I’ve been so lucky to have recognized from a young age how important her stories are to me.

    My father kept all of his childhood stories under lock and key–it was as if he’d only been born as a policeman in a small town.

    This weekend I’m bringing our foster child to a family reunion–with a twist–after some initial research I’ve discovered that there’s a fairly good chance this girl is a distant relation! This will be a fact-finding mission for sure! It will be a miracle if we are related and that our paths have crossed coming from such distant places, but what a story!

    Thanks for sharing your memories. Have you seen that viral video about a son and his discovery of old VHS videos of his childhood–way too heartbreaking!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Adrienne, I’m so sorry to hear about your mom’s difficult childhood. Sometimes people who’ve been grievously injured can only discuss the trauma by relating it as if they’re talking about someone else. Have you written down any of her stories? Or recorded them?
      I’m not sure any of us escape childhood unscathed, but some kids certainly suffer more injustice and pain than others. Sounds like your family is a true blessing for your foster daughter and maybe this is the way it was intended to be. I hope she’s becoming more comfortable as she feels safer. May all of you enjoy the reunion.
      I haven’t seen the video but I’ll look for it – maybe – I spend way too much time looking at videos – I’ll search for something that has to do with one of my books and then get distracted with the side stories, and you know how that goes.
      Thank you for reading this post.

      Like

      • I think all my novels hold little bits of my mother in them. Her ability to be a little detached actually saved her from a lifetime of heartache. A few of her sisters kept reliving the bad memories for their entire lives.

        I try not to watch too many videos either but my sister sent this one to me and said I’d cry so I was curious…I didn’t cry though 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Good memories. I remember having two phone numbers installed in our house–for an early iteration of a family business (that didn’t work out) and our home landline. Now we have none! My business is now a cell phone and a virtual phone through Google Voice. How we’ve changed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So you are also of the two-phone stock! Are you able to imagine what communication will be like in 10 years, then in 20? With your grasp of technology, you probably can foresee much more than I can. Change progresses at exponential speeds. Thanks for your input, Jacqui.

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  4. Shari B-P, First, thanks for the “thanks” and the plug for my blog. You are a dear!

    Second, thanks for the memories of our 10-party-line phone that hung on the wall in the kitchen. I wasn’t allowed to use the phone but it really didn’t matter since children never talked to other children on the phone and who wanted to talk to a relative . . . especially standing up.

    When I was a junior in college I lived in a co-op where all the residents had to pitch in with chores and upkeep. I was lucky to get switch board duty (as opposed to cleaning garbage cans or serving food) and learned to use the plug-in phone lines like fingy-dingy Geraldine.

    Ah, but those weren’t the days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re most welcome, Judy.

      One of the jobs I worked at while attending college was as a switchboard operator on an old fashioned answering service exchange. I sat at a board with 100 jacks, each associated with a business, and answered the phone for people who ran small businesses, like handymen, repair services, etc. The doctor’s exchange was handled by the most experienced operator because she had to make decisions about when to contact the physician (there was often a secret phone number where he could be reached) or when to call emergency services. More than once she gave critical information to people in distress, similar to what 911 responders do.

      I usually handled people wanting to cancel subscriptions or find a plumber or make reservations. Many people didn’t realize that we were an exchange and not in an office directly associated with the business they were trying to contact. Same thing as what you did: plugged in one jack from one line to another jack and spoke to them through my headphones (I called it the headache phone) or took and relayed messages. We were the end of the line for this business. Shortly afterward, advanced phone service made it possible for people to leave messages directly on the phone lines of the actual businesses. I would have been washed out but I graduated from college just in time.

      Fun times, weren’t they?

      Like

  5. I enjoyed your story about the telephones. Well done on answering them in a professional manner when you were six, by the way. Your wider point about experiences disappearing with us is something I’ve thought about too. I’ve sat with my mother and gone through old family photographs with her, finding out who the people are and learning something about them, but I’ve already forgotten a lot of the details. My kids will remember even less, and to future generations, the people will be totally anonymous. I think about the photographs in which I appear and realize this is likely to be my fate too.

    Like

    • I think computers and digital devices make it much easier to save information including photos and videos than past generations were able to do. Facebook has a program that allows you to print a name under any photo.
      We think we are so ordinary and that our life style and the significant incidents that mark our lives will automatically be remembered by our kids, but our kids aren’t listening. It’s up to us to preserve anything we believe is worthwhile.
      Thank you for reading, Bun. Always nice to find your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Good post. When we lose our parents we lose so much history of our ancestors and our early childhood years as well. I regret I didn’t ask more questions when I still had my parents.

    Like

  7. I remember the days of only having one landline phone, and time on it was zealously guarded. I could only have brief conversations on it because someone else might call.

    It would be seen as hopelessly archaic now. Our home when I was a child had no dryer, no microwave, only an old clunky black and white television, and a record player. Different times. 🙂

    Like

    • All those things we regarded as amazing at the time, or as so ordinary that we never gave them a second thought, and now I want to know the details of our lives with those old things. As you note, Cathleen, different times.

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  8. I, too, did not have the patience to listen to stories of my parents beginnings when they were still alive. Now so many of my friends have gone waay too soon. How I miss their voices, their stories. There is an app I’m told that will help one chronicle those words in their own voices before it’s too late before the sound is silence…and it will be safely archived for posterity… so we may listen and remember…it’s called STORYCORPS

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    • Hi, Tina, so nice to meet you. I’ll soon be heading over to your site to check it out.

      I’ve heard about StoryCorps so that’s another site to check out.

      A team of oral archivists (I guess that might be the right term) came to the residence where my mom lives about five years ago. They helped me record her as she talked about her life. Mom has Alzheimer’s disease and I think we got this interview just in time. She cannot remember anything now, and it would be impossible to record her speaking about her life or even about lunch a half hour ago. It’s this terrible loss as well as how fast my few remaining aunts are aging (we all age at the same rate, of course, but when you talk to someone in their late 80s, you know there can’t be many times left) that made me realize I must start to write as many stories as I can. That last silence is profound in its accusation that I waited too long for some of them.

      Have you recorded family stories? How did you approach your project?

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  9. Thanks for the mention Sharon. I’m glad that I helped in putting the place of memory in our lives. Luckily you listened to your parents enough to know there is a story there. Would your Aunt know any of the stories you are trying to recover? I’m glad you have written your first memoir and shared it with us. I know that you have brought back telephone memories not only for me but also for your other readers. I can understand the buzz you must have got from having six phones. Little things like that are so important in childhood giving you a sense of superiority over the other kids in the class and giving you a sense of importance and worth when you did answer in that professional voice you had practiced for the occasion. I can just see you. Your kids are going to be so pleased that you are writing these things down as when they are our age they will want to know and be grateful that they didn’t have to rely on memory alone. Your grandkids and great grandkids will probably not believe it.

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    • You are most welcome, Irene. Thanks for the idea.

      You asked a very perceptive question, about my aunt and what she knows of our family history. And it will be answered in the next post.

      Our grands already consider me hopelessly out of date as I don’t have a smart phone, just a cheap track phone. I only use it for emergencies, and mostly so the place where my mom lives can reach me no matter where I am, in case of emergency. But those phones, you are right about the amount of cachet I got from them.

      And then my dad bought the first color TV in the whole area – you can imagine how special I felt. My folks invited all of our aunts, uncles, and cousins over to see it. In the early days, only a few shows were broadcast in color, one of them being Bonanza. Not sure if you got Bonanza in Australia. It was about the old West, in the mid-1800s, and the Cartwright family who owned a huge Nevada ranch called the Ponderosa. The peacock spreading his magnificent Living Color tail was as huge a treat as any color show.

      We may have had the edge once, but my husband and I are practically Luddites now. I know how to cut and paste on the computer and that’s about it for technical skill. The grands are way ahead of us as are all their friends.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll look forward to your next post. I know what you mean about the TV. We were very late in getting one and I was green with envy of all the kids that did have one. My aunt had the first colour tv I saw. She had taped blue celophane to the top and green at the bottom. Not sure if the middle was red or yellow. We were most impressed. We did get Bonanza and while Adam was in it I watched it religiously (once we got a TV). When he was gone I stopped . I had a huge crush on him which started with a rodeo program he was in but nobody but me can remember it.
        Roger is a luddite and doesn’t want to know. I try and keep up but I know I’m slipping but not as quickly as many of my friends.

        Like

      • I just remembered – I got to meet Dan Blocker who played the middle son, Hoss.I attended a music and theater camp for kids and adults when I was a teenager. They brought professional theater to perform in the evening, and he attended one of the plays, then hung around the next day. He was very quiet and kind but mostly ignored us kids.

        I love your aunt’s inventive color TV – she must have been quite a character. Funny thing is, I live relatively close to Hollywood, yet I’ve never seen a live taping of a TV show, never been in the audience for a game show.

        Liked by 1 person

      • A touch with fame. I always felt Hoss was a bit on the outer. Auntie Boudie was a character with a very colourful family history (she was an aunt by marriage but my brother found her so fascinating he has researched her history.) She still sent me rag books for Christmas and birthdays when I was a teenager.
        I’ve never been to a live TV show either.

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      • The show gave each of the characters a rather one-dimensional personality. Hoss was the dull one. In fact, Dan Blocker wasn’t at all dull.
        If you come to the States, we could go to a show together – though the good ones are long off the air. Ach, I’ll take you to the Getty Museum or Hearst Castle.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m in. I’ll start saving my pennies. Perhaps the first memoir will be so popular an American movie maker will pay for my trip over there to discsuss making it into a film. Best get finished.

        Like

      • My story or yours? Both I hope. I’ll travel to Australia (I’ve always wanted to go) and you’ll come here, the better for each of us to celebrate each other’s successes.
        Seriously, what’s the update on yours being published? Or are you still awaiting final grade?

        Liked by 1 person

      • It has been submitted and will take some months before I hear anything more of it. I am going to concentrate on getting my first one published now that I have time I can devote to it. Hopefully by the end of the year for that one. The other?????

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      • Would love to celebrate your success too. A WIP for both of us.

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      • You know what my hang up is.
        BTW, what time is it in Australia? We’re both on the computer at the same time. It’s 7:30 PM, June 18 here.
        I think it’s June 19 in Aus?

        Liked by 1 person

      • It is 19 June at 1244 pm on a wet miserable Sunday.

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      • Oh, be grateful for rain. California is on fire as is much of the Southwest. There had been a small fire near where my mom lives. The facility had to ready 100 ill and frail people for possible evacuation. Fortunately, there was no wind and they were able to put out the fire before it spread and became dangerous. So send us your rain. We need it.
        You and Roger having lunch now?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Almost. About to go to a concert at my Mum’s retirement village. Will ask the rain to go your way.

        Like

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