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.
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