Sunday, February 01, 2015

Politics and a short history of telephones.

Rooster one day, feather duster the next, or so my husband reckons in relation to the fate of a certain politician and his conservative party following their defeat in yesterdays election in Queensland. 

Triumph to abjection.  I know the slide well.  The ways in which I might see-saw between omnipotence and impotence.  One day on top of the world, the next day in the gutter. 

My boyfriend rang from Edithvale.  It wasn’t often I spoke on the telephone.  I had an aversion to the disembodied voice at the other end.  The fact that I could not see the other person’s face rendered me voiceless, as if I could not find words enough in my mind to fill the silence that grew between us. 

And so I had trained myself to use the telephone only for calls of an intentional nature.  The calls you make to arrange an appointment, or to meet someone.  Nothing that required any other effort than to relay a brief message. 

The call on the telephone to my boyfriend to make arrangements for when we would meet on the weekend was even shorter than I had expected when my father came along with his scissors and snipped the cord. 

The idea that I should engage with someone in the outside world, or perhaps the fact that this someone was a boyfriend, had enraged my father. 

There was no reasoning with him, and I fled.

Forty years later when my then fifteen-year-old daughter was on the phone for about the fourth time that night clogging up the line, my husband took my father’s place. 

In those days we had only one line and my husband sometimes needed it for work.  He, too, destroyed the connection that night, but not in the same way.  Not quite.

He snatched the telephone from our daughter’s hand after she had refused to finish up the call and cracked the receiver open on his knee.  It must have hurt him, but his rage shielded him from too much pain. 

Not so our daughter.  She was devastated and she too fled, but not after remonstrating with her father for doing this, and with me for not stopping him.

Years later my daughter showed me she had kept the broken telephone in her possession as a souvenir of that dreadful time. 

It’s not something my husband is proud of, nor am I.

It puzzles me this antipathy we can have to others who connect elsewhere with someone else in our presence.  The jealousy that stirs. 

It was not the first time my father had disconnected the telephone.  He did it years before when I was still very small, but this time he simply refused to pay the bill and the telephone company instead cut us off. 

For years we were without a telephone and it seemed to me even as a seven year old that there was something shameful about not having a telephone number to offer people in case they might want to make contact with us, other than face to face, on foot or by letter. 

I never once talked to my father about his decision to sever my phone connection with my boyfriend but to give him credit, my husband talked to my daughter and in a calmer moment he apologised.  He was good at apologising. 

As was my daughter, both apologised for their part in the fracas, but in my mind now I hang the responsibility on my husband’s shoulders and on mine.

We should have found a better way to deal with an adolescent daughter who spent too many hours on the telephone, even though at the time it seemed as though words were not enough.

In the end we ordered an extra phone line and there was no longer any need to police the time spent on calls except when mobiles came in and for a time our daughter could run up huge bills from talking too long to her friends on this then more expensive form. 

Today the mobile phone is such a lifeline for most of us.  And I, too, am in the habit of checking mine several times a day just to be sure no one is trying to reach me. 

Another daughter in Scotland communicates by Skype and we, too, talk on the phone but now face to face on the screen. 

It helps to see her face.  It helps to hear her voice.  The distance between us washes away for a moment and she could be in the next room.

When my mother and father travelled from Holland to Australia in the early 1950s, before my father had the telephone cut off, my grandparents sometimes made a call.  We children were never allowed to speak, but I heard the tension in my mother’s voice as she tried to connect across the distance with her own father and how every word which cost so much money seemed precious and therefore too hard to find.  The conversations were stilted and short.

Words are like that, unless they flow freely, they fall flat.  From rooster to feather duster in one fell swoop. 


Teresa Stenson said...


PhilipH said...

How times change insofar are the now ubiquitous phone is concerned.

How the heck did we manage before we had a mobile phone as a constant companion.

When I was serving in the RAF and stationed in Germany, 1953 to 56, I had a girl-friend who lived in Hereford. I had to book a call in advance one weekend just to speak with her a couple of days later.

That phone call was truly wonderful and every word was so precious. Short and sweet, and expensive.

Now we seem to need to speak or text somebody each and every day! Are these mobiles a blessing or a pain in the butt!

Unknown said...

I really like the structure and understatement of this--how the telephone's used to reflect on family and history and what it means to try to communicate.

Jim Murdoch said...

It must’ve been about 1972 when my parents got the phone installed. That was when my father had his first heart attack and Mum had to go a neighbour to ask to use theirs. We lived at No.10 and the neighbour she went to lived at No.7 and were not a family she was especially friendly with so I’m guessing she went to them because they had a business—the husband owned and ice cream van—and she imagined they’d need a phone for that. It was the right time for us to get a phone because I’d just started at the academy and my circle of friends was widening. Up until then everyone I associated with lived a stone’s throw away. The idea of phoning them was preposterous. But by thirteen I had friends who lived miles away. There was even a girl and, indeed, it was her that I spent most of my time talking to on the phone. It allowed a degree of intimacy without the complications of physicality. My parents rarely made a fuss about my phone usage. It wasn’t like I was on there for hours every night and they virtually never called anyone. The phone was there in case my dad had another heart attack. He did eventually, many years later, and there was no time to phone anyone; he just dropped dead. My mum phoned me after his body’d been taken away—this was about three in the morning—and then asked me what I was going to do then. I said, “I dunno. My dad’s never died before.” As it was I was on the first train out of Glasgow. Always the dutiful son.

I never call anyone nowadays. The medical centre a couple of times a year, once for my blood pressure and then for my asthma check-up. I communicate with my daughter via e-mail. I think in the last eight years I’ve phoned her once and I remember how concerned she sounded when she answered because she assumed the worst. Not even sure now why I called. I have a mobile. I use it once or twice a year. I love getting asked to do surveys about mobile phone usage. You can just see the look of utter disbelief in their faces. I don’t even have a smartphone and the phone I do have is about ten years old. I’d still be using the one I had prior to this one because there was nothing wrong with it; Carrie just decided I ought to have a new phone. She uses hers even less than I do. Most of the time my phone’s turned off to be honest and I need to charge it before going out. I have it for emergencies. In case I have a heart attack.

Unknown said...

Powerful vignettes, Elisabeth. I remember being disconnected whilst on the phone, and it feels as if someone has violated your personal space.

These days it's still used. I threaten to take away my teens' phones when I've run out of options. I use the phone threat because it works—it's the most powerful tool in my arsenal. They love their phones. They love being connected to their friends. They love its privacy. And I know that. I can get them to do a complete turnaround using it—they'll do their music practice, stop yelling, follow-through with the commitment they made, etc. I know I shouldn't threaten negative consequences and all the rest, but teenage kids can be very trying and sometimes you have to use your best weapon. I must say, I felt a lot better when I heard that other parents do the same ...