"Is it o.k. to call at this time? Pops."
The first text message my old man ever sent me was on July 23, 2010. His rookie status as a texter is obvious: He signed his name. I saved it for years. That text marked a new stage in our relationship. It was a digital talisman of the moment I no longer had to share him.
Most people I know had to share their parents. They competed with siblings as though bobbing for apples, trying to grasp the slippery attention of mom or dad or both. Few have had to share their parent with criminals.
Pops worked long days as a defense attorney when I was growing up in Cleveland in the '80s. As far as I could tell, my old man wore ties, talked to judges, and coached people in hushed or heightened tones on the phone.
Rape, involuntary manslaughter, and misdemeanor were household parlance. We were used to picking up the phone and hearing "Will you accept a call from the Lake Erie Correctional Institution?"
An unwitting baby sitter would hold up the phone. "Oh, yeah," my siblings and I would say, barely looking up from a round of Yahtzee. "Just take a message."
At night, after we had gone to bed, I heard the old man on the phone asking, "Do you have a minute?" He would spend far more than a minute discussing what his client could expect the next day.
Were these clients taking notes? Did they have family members hopping on to the extension to listen? Did they know my dad had kids in nightgowns who were eavesdropping on the details of posting bail? I envied the intimate counsel these clients enjoyed with my old man. The nights he picked me up from dance lessons and I had him to myself were tiny sanctuaries.
Then, a breakthrough. Shortly after I had become a parent myself, someone at Pops's office (whom I shall remember in my will) taught him to reply to a text message. A new father emerged.
He texted while waiting for clients in his office. He texted while watching baseball with his pugs. He texted commentary on the news and thinking-of-yous. He texted back within minutes usually.
A typical text from my dad will include some strand of nostalgia. To my message that I had finally seen the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, he responded:
"Top ten all time. How about Fredric March returning home and holding his hand across his son's mouth so that he can surprise his wife personally? Their embrace in the hallway? I crack every time that I see it and I've seen it a dozen times."
The best part of texting with my old man was the lack of interference. There were no secretary in-betweens, no calling at a bad time, no having to punctuate a voice mail with some degree of high or low alert. Via text, I could be sappy or curt, and the message would come across in a way that allowed for clarifying questions. I felt no pressure to pack it all in for that one moment or phone call of connectedness. The conversation was more fluid, more flexible, and more from the heart.
A tinny glowing pocket device has bridged the gap between two islands, my father and me, calling out from our respective latitudes. We have always been close, but often our messages got tangled, like a phone cord. Now we are free to roam, sending questions and remembrances.
We who text trust that somewhere out in the ether, words and emoticons are sorted and translated for the generations to understand. And if not understood, your old man may text to ask if it is an OK time to call.
Kendra Stanton Lee teaches journalism in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Send comments to email@example.com.