“There’s nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished. Or an old address book.” ~ Carson McCullers
If you use the term “address book” today, people immediately think of that “thing” in their email program that stores email addresses. Or maybe they think of that other “thing” on their cell phone that stores phone numbers and names. I’m young enough to use the latest technology, but I straddle the gap between “now” and the seemingly old-fashioned generation of our parents. So I’m also old enough to remember when an address book used to be a real bound book full of people’s home addresses and phone numbers.
The address book was actually a great source of humor in our house. Not when we first began to use it – what’s so funny about a book of full of phone numbers? But the humor came later. Much later. You see, we started a family address book when I was young – and although we updated some of the information over the years, we never really updated the entire book. Fast forward to 20 or 25 years later, when my mother would retrieve the book to find a phone number. As she paged through the book, a particular name would catch her eye. “Who’s Julie? Or Ralph?” she’d ask.
“Julie or Ralph? I have no idea,” I replied.
“They’re right here – in the book,” my mother would insist, as if being in the book would mean I automatically knew everything about the person, akin to your “permanent record” in Catholic school.
“Well,” I said, “whoever they are or were, I don’t know them now.”
“Jim!” My mother would now yell to my father. “Who’s Julie at 632-2713? Or Ralph listed under ‘H’?”
Naturally, my father would have no idea either. In those cases of Unknown Individuals Listed in The Book, we had to assume that someone entered our home while we were out, found the address book in the kitchen hutch, and entered Julie and Ralph’s names and numbers as a joke.
I suggested calling Julie or Ralph to find out who they were. “We can’t do that!” my mother replied.
“Why not? Someone in this house knew who they were at some point!” But we never called the mysterious strangers listed in “the book” – none of us were curious enough to find out who they really were. Because if we found out, one of us would have to admit to forgetting who these people were.
But we knew most of the entries since we did enter the information ourselves. Sometimes my mother would ask about someone and I wouldn’t recognize the name, and her reply would be, “Well, this is your handwriting here.”
“Let me see,” I’d say and review the mystery name. “Mom, look at the handwriting – it looks like I wrote this in when I was 10 years old!”
“And you don’t remember who it is?”
“Sure I do – a girl from 5th grade that I haven’t talked to in 25 years!”
“Well,” my mother would say resolutely, “I guess we can cross it out.”
Many entries would get crossed out over the years, but we still kept the same book. After all, it still had empty pages to fill so it was perfectly usable. My mother wasn’t always the questioner either – sometimes I would look through the book and ask her if a number was still needed.
“Mom, Dr. Roman’s been dead for at least ten years – maybe this one can go.”
“Why? The doctor that took over still has the same phone number.” She had a point. Of course, we knew the number by heart after calling it over the years, so there really was no need to write it down in an address book because we never needed to look it up. Contrast that scenario with the present, when we never actually dial a number because they’re programmed in the “speed dial,” which makes it difficult to remember even the most frequently called numbers.
Sometimes entries were crossed out because the person had died. It always felt rude to cross the name out in the book, as if by leaving the entry as-is you could still call the person to chat. It seemed better just to leave it there, and for many years we did – a reminder of old friends.
Many of the older entries in the book had “old time” phone number exchanges in which letters were used for the first two numbers. In my neighborhood, the phone numbers began with either 632- or 637-, but instead of “63” we’d say “NE” which was phone-code-speak for “Neptune”. I’d always laugh when my father would recite a phone number as “Neptune 7-1234” or “Mayfair 4-9876”. It amused me because it seemed so old-fashioned, a la Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” But now that we don’t use those exchanges anymore I miss them! Today there are so many phone numbers that you have to dial the entire 10-digit number including the area code just to call within the city of Philadelphia.
As its name implies, the address book also contained addresses. These were primarily used for Christmas cards, birthday cards, or invitations as well as the occasional letter. The striking thing about this is that the addresses and phone numbers never needed to be updated. My parents’ friends lived in the same houses throughout my entire childhood – and they all still live in those houses and have the same phone numbers today. My own address book (yes, I still keep an actual book) has many scratched out addresses and arrows drawn to new entries as friends move or marry.
The entries all take up much more space now as well. We no longer have a single phone number, but a number for home, cell, work, work cell, as well as email addresses for home and work. The ways to reach someone seem endless, yet it is rare today to talk to someone on the phone when they aren’t busy doing something else at the same time. The irony is that there are many ways to reach out, but you never actually make the connection.
One day when I was in my mid 30’s, we decided that “the book” was ridiculous since 85% of the entries were for businesses that no longer existed, people who had died, or friends we “unfriended” years ago. Not to mention the papers and business cards stuffed inside of it that either my parents or I were too lazy to record in the book. So I did something I never dreamed possible – I gave my mother a new address book. It seemed a shame to throw the old one out unceremoniously after all the years it had spent living in our kitchen hutch, but, in the end, that’s what we did – only after the “good” numbers and addresses were dutifully transferred.
Too bad that old book couldn’t speak to us. If it could give some final words before departing our lives, we would have finally found out who Julie and Ralph were!
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[Join me next week for another telephone-related memory on Memory Monday!]
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