by Laura Richards

Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant —
No! no! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone —
(Dear me! I am not certain quite              That even now I’ve got it right.)

Howe’er it was, he got his trunk     Entangled in the telephunk;                        The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telephee —
(I fear I’d better drop the song
Of elephop and telephong!)

When I was very young, both my grandmothers had daffodil phones in their front halls, on funny little tables attached to a bench. Alas, there was no elephone, although my grandmother’s name was Ellen, and we would hear the grown ups call out “Ella, phone!”

If we had a phone at home, I don’t remember it.

In 1947 we moved from Brantford to live in the new house my grandfather was building on a two lane country road to nowhere… now one of the busiest streets in Hamilton. A skilled cabinet maker, he built the house by himself…  as money was available for materials, a bit more was done. When my grandmother died and we moved in to the still uncompleted house, we had the only telephone for miles. They were in short supply, and Baba had applied for one as soon as he started building, because my grandmother was an invalid. It was, of course, a party line… two longs and a short.

This meant that our house became known as the place to go to make an emergency call. My mother would get up in the middle of the night and answer the door to distraught strangers… she was always the first to know when there had been an accident or fire, a sudden death or suicide, a heart attack or a woman going into labour. My sister and I were not supposed to know about these visitsors, but we became adept at secret surveillance. Sometimes my father would drive the stranger somewhere. The following day, these interruptions were never discussed or explained… they could have been bad dreams, for all I knew.

The party line had four other subscribers… we didn’t know who, or where. We did know always to listen before dialling, to wait at least ten minutes before checking again, and never to interrupt the garrulous old lady who talked on and on and on, well beyond the ten minute limits we were expected to observe. The phone was on the counter in the kitchen, within reach of my mentally disabled brother who would race to pick up on every ring. It was always a challenge to beat him to the phone and resolutely hold the receiver down while he shrieked and the phone continued ringing. When he started trying to dial out, Mother bought a lock that prevented using the rotary dial. Incoming calls were as usual, but you needed to ask Mother to unlock the phone to call out. Eventually this old black phone was replaced with a shiny red one, like the hot line in the White House, and the party line was discontinued.

Having more than one phone was unheard of then, but by the time we were teens, extensions were available. My younger sister received a turquoise princess phone for her sixteenth birthday and it was installed in our shared  bedroom.  It was hers and hers alone! I was never to use it… calls from my boyfriend still had to be taken in the noisy and very public kitchen. My desk was in the bedroom, the only quiet place for homework. It really annoyed my sister if I stayed there, trying to work, sighing, looking at my watch, rocking my chair back and forth just inches away from where she lay sprawled on the bed! Sometimes my revenge was to work late, with the light on of course, after my sister wanted to go to sleep. After all, I could hardly tell the Latin teacher that my homework was unfinished because my sister was on the phone! Sibling warfare!

The best part-time job was working the long distance switchboard at Bell. The operators who worked the night shift got paid more, and were sent home by cab at company expense. My mother did not approve of this, so I worked at the university library for a measly 60 cents an hour.

Long distance calls were said to cost a fortune! I remember only one… I was alone at home when a call came for my father to say that one of his brothers had gone overboard in a boating accident in Algonquin Park. I packed his suitcase and drove it to his office; he went north immediately and was not home again for ten days.

By the time I  had two babies, the appeal of social phone calls had long worn off.  Two very elderly aunts filled their empty days, every day, by phoning “just to say hello”. These calls always involved considerable repetition and shouting and lasted at least half an hour apiece!  I bought a plastic cradle that held the phone on my shoulder, leaving my hands free. Using this, I was able to nurse the baby, fold diapers, iron, wash dishes, prepare meals, sew, and keep my toddler amused with his own Fischer Price phone. My mother phoned every night at ten o’clock. Leaving the phone off the hook, or not picking up were responses too rude and unkind even to consider. If I didn’t pick up, an anxious interrogation… where was I, is everything all right, how are the babies, what were you doing? It was easier just to answer. Of course, there were no answering machines, or call display.

But in those days, as I recall, there were other advantages. There were no annoying advertising calls or pre-recorded calls. When the phone rang, it was a personal call, and you answered.  Phoning a business, you got a busy signal, rather than being left on hold with really bad music playing. There was no long list of menu options… press one for English, two for French, etcetera. When you called the doctor, you actually got to talk to a live person.  And there were pay phones conveniently located everywhere you went, activated by real coins, not prepaid cards!

In the high schools where I taught, there was one phone for teachers to use, and this was never a separate line. Anyone in the office could pick up and hear your conversation.  So you might be sitting in the noisy staffroom at lunch, trying to make an appointment with your gynecologist, or checking home to make sure that the babysitter was coping effectively with a sick child, or talking to a divorce lawyer. There was always a line up behind you, waiting to call. Incoming calls for the staff were unheard of unless there was a death in the family, or equally urgent news!

When I started teaching the gifted class, I actually had a phone, a line separate from the office, in my classroom. This was so that we could link our old Commodore 64 with the other “gifted classrooms” in the city so that the students could get to know one another and collaborate on projects. Wonderful! (Our after school computer club had a “board” which they called TS… for toilet seat, because it was always up and down.)  Since the school secretary would never allow students to use the office phone, word got out that “our” phone was available, and students would come to our room begging to call home.  The other teachers thought I was terribly lenient. As a parent, though, I knew the importance of this communication.

When my two sons went to study abroad as exchange students… one for a year in France, then both individually for a year in Japan…weekly long distance calls were a necessary luxury… scheduled in advance… rationed as to length. Our phone bills were, nonetheless, several hundred dollars a month. No phone plans, no internet, no skype… and incredibly long numbers to dial, ever so carefully

Now we have telephones in every room, and cell phones as well, but telephone conversations are less and less important. When the phone rings it is usually a nuisance call advertising duct cleaning services or replacement windows!  When I want to contact my friends, I do not interrupt their day. I email the information, or email to ask them to phone back at their convenience. This can be tricky though. My husband hung up twice on someone returning a call to me… someone with a heavy accent who did not identify herself and the purpose of her call fast enough to avoid the inevitable… “No thank you, take us off your list, and don’t call again!”

Now I can call from the car if I am caught in traffic… except it is illegal even when parked in gridlock or stopped at a light.  Cell phones ring all the time in public places. There is something  surreal about seeing people walking down the street… or sitting on the bus beside you, or at the next table at the coffee shop… talking loudly  to an invisible listener.

Nothing annoys me more than shopping in person and having to wait while the clerk takes an incoming call.  Except, of course, being left on hold, while that smarmy recorded voice tells me over and over that my call is important… etcetera. Oh, and one more… the loop, where you are moved automatically from one menu choice to another until you return to start… like that children’s game SORRY, where you keep being sent back to HOME to start over!

The telephone… where would we be without it!?

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