can't phone home
One of the last vestiges of family unity is disappearing - the family phone number. This is a lot more momentous than you might think. First of all, if you have to reach someone's mother, are you sure you want to bother them on the cell phone, when you don't know where they are or what they are doing? Second, cell phone numbers still aren't listed. How do you look someone up when they don't have a home phone? How do you find out where they live?
Even more, this is the era of growing individuation, when we walk around with plugs sticking in our ears, radically distancing us from one another even when we stand just a hair's breadth away, draped in our private cocoons woven in threads of invisible sound. Family phone numbers symbolically kept us together, even if we eat at different times, if our kids listen to their MP3s when driving with us in the car, and text their friends while we are talking to them.
We have lost the iconic family dinner; rarely gather weekly in front of the TV for a favorite family show; certainly don't sit around the hearth and tell stories or read out loud to one another; hardly play together in this generationally-divided world, and long ago lost our family crest with our ancestral coat of arms. We even have ceded common surnames shared by all members of the family, what with women keeping their given names (like me) and blended families bringing different names into one abode.
At least we could all point to the shared home phone number. Everyone who lived in that house could be reached there. To know that the other members of your household possessed that number, too, was a signal that no matter whatever else might divide you, those seven numbers made you an indivisible unit. You belonged to and were responsible for each other.
Believe me, I never thought of this until today, when a friend of mine emailed me to say that she was giving up her house phone number. Everyone in the family would now only be reachable through their personal cell phones. I immediately felt a loss. I enjoyed the serendipity of calling them and speaking to whomever answered the phone. I felt close to all the members. Sometimes I wanted to connect to the family, not an individual. Now when I want to invite the family for dinner, I have to choose whom to call. I have to decide who represents the family. The sense of whole is lost.
If I feel a loss of center for them, do they feel the same loss of center? To me, family phone numbers are powerful symbols. Even when my children are at college, with dorm numbers and cell numbers, our home phone number is their phone number. We are bound by seven digits even when separated by hundreds of miles. My phone number ceases being theirs when they get married, or move out to pursue a career. It is as much a rite-of-passage as getting a driver's license.
Life-changing events severe family connections to the home phone number. When children leave to build homes of their own. When divorce divides a family. That is life as it is meant to be. That is when home numbers change.
My friend will save almost $200 by disconnecting her home phone. It is a trend that has begun and will no doubt continue, much to the symbolic loss of a family center. I doubt we can reverse it. But at least let us mourn the loss of home-ness that it symbolizes. Perhaps we can find a substitute for it (reinvent the family crests?). And maybe in a dashing display, we can use the money we save to pay for one last celebratory family dinner: Chinese, home-delivery.