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The Boston Globe

South

Beverly Beckham

Longing for the good old telephone

Edward J. Bock III

You lose touch with people. Impossible to believe when you’re young and surrounded by family and friends, your mother just down the hall, your closest friends just down the street.

Sometimes, back then, you’d hear an older person say, “I haven’t seen my best friend in 10 years.” And you’d think: But they went to school together. They were in each other’s weddings. Why hasn’t she seen her? That will never happen to me.

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And then it does.

People have bulk. They make noise. They are hard to misplace. They shouldn’t be like socks lost in the laundry. But they are. One minute they’re there. And the next minute they’re not. Not even with e-mail and Facebook connecting us.

I used to talk to my cousin Jeannie a lot. A few weeks would go by, and one of us would always pick up the phone simply because we missed each other. I had children at home and she had five little kids vying for her attention. Still, we made time to talk.

Now all our kids are grown and we seldom talk. She e-mailed yesterday. “We haven’t spoken in so long!” And then we did. We talked and laughed and caught up and wondered, what were we waiting for?

I don’t have long conversations with any friends about books and movies and kids and life, meandering back-and-forths about everything and nothing, the telephone tucked under my chin. Not the way I used to.

People have bulk. They make noise. They are hard to misplace. They shouldn’t be like socks lost in the laundry. But they are.

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In 1970 Judy Long lived in Rockland, 20 miles away. And yet we baked cinnamon bread together. We read passages of books out loud together. We glued pine cones on Christmas wreaths together. We even sewed together, cutting out patterns on our kitchen tables. We lived in separate houses, miles apart. But the phone made us feel as if we were side by side.

Now she lives in Florida, still just a phone call away. But we never talk. We click “like” on Facebook or write “wow,” or post pictures. It’s like Morse code, quick and efficient. But there is no meandering, no sudden thought or insight that detours you onto a side road where spoken language so often leads.

My friend Lois used to leave phone messages for me the long ago summer I spent six weeks in New York City. My youngest daughter was 16 and had been accepted into a drama program there. She was too young to go to New York alone, so we sublet a small apartment.

Some nights the red flashing light on the answering machine greeted us when we came home. And there would be Lois saying, “Hello. How was your day? Just thinking of you.”

She was 220 miles away. But she was there.

A few weeks ago I talked to a student I taught in my fourth-grade class decades ago. We’d been Facebooking and e-mailing. But then we picked up the phone. And it was the best conversation.

So why has the telephone been usurped by what is clearly an inferior way to communicate? People who can’t speak laud technology that gives them a voice. It’s what they long for. To talk. To be heard.

Talk is fast. Talk is exact. Talk has tone. And nuance.

Texting is cumbersome, lacks nuance, and relies on symbols to convey emotion. It’s a toddler’s vocabulary.

Yes, it’s great for a quick question. “Did you want your sub on pita or a roll?” And, yes, it’s great because you can communicate with a lot of people at the same time. “Who’s going to the movies tonight?” And, yes, Facebook is great, too, because it’s like peeking in the windows of houses you walk by at night when the lights are on.

But to actually communicate with someone? To hear a person’s voice? To discern joy, puzzlement, resignation, confusion, concern, love, hope?

There is FaceTime, of course. And its irreplaceable precursor: the incomparable, out of fashion, totally amazing telephone.

Reach Beverly Beckham at beverlybeckham@me.com.
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