A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What's in a Number?

Decades ago my parents moved themselves and their baby daughter from Lexington, Kentucky to Columbus, Ohio. During the intervening years, our family, then later my widowed mother, moved two more times, both times within a close enough radius that we could keep the same phone number.

We started out on a party line – one of my parents would pick up the phone to make a call (I was too young to use a phone then) and hear someone else having a conversation. Fortunately that soon stopped. We went from a letter prefix for our exchange (“BE”) to the corresponding numerals (“23”). We started out dialing “0” for the Operator when we needed to make a long-distance call; over time that was replaced direct dialing, and our number got a three-digit prefix, the area code. The Bell Telephone monopoly ended, and we had our choice of carriers.

Over the years that phone line flowed into basic black rotary dial instruments, larger and smaller wall phones, the “princess” model (I never did get one of my own in my bedroom!), push button phones, and cordless.

And the conversations that phone line knew! My little self, talking with grandparents, aunts, and uncles. My teenage self, waiting for a boy to call, or commiserating with girlfriends when he didn’t. My college student self, calling because I was homesick, or needed money or advice on a life-altering decision. No answering machines, no voicemail, no caller ID. You answered the phone – or didn’t – and took your chances. You called, and had to decide how long to wait before giving up and hanging up.

That phone line shared good news and bad. I was home alone as a teen when a call came in from my uncle in Georgia telling me that my grandmother had died. From that phone I called the friends my parents were visiting that afternoon and from that phone told my father that his mother was no longer with us. Years later, my mother called to tell me that her mother had died. Many years after that, from that same number, she called my family and me three states away to tell us that we needed to come to Columbus sooner rather than later for Christmas break if we wanted to see my father before he died. I dialed that number to tell my parents, twice, that grandchildren were on the way, and twice that those grandchildren had arrived.

Recently my mother moved into a nursing home. She has her own private phone in her room, but she’s just far enough outside the radius of her former residence to have had a new phone number assigned. I’m actually amazed at how quickly I’ve been able not only to memorize that new number, but to have conditioned my brain to think of it when I pick up my phone to call her – after all, old habits die hard. I doubt I’ll ever forget the old number, though (every so often I’m tempted to call it just to see if it’s been re-assigned yet) – after all, that old number was a part of my life for as long as I can remember. That’s what’s in a number: memories, relationships, history, and most of all the substance, significant and otherwise, of the living of ordinary lives. 

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