When children learn to use the phone

Lucy calls her grandmother on her dial phone. | Sheri Hathaway photo

Kids have a much more casual acceptance of telecommunications technology than when the author was a young child

My granddaughter, Lucy, learned how to call me on the phone when she was four years old.

At any time, I can expect an excited little girl to reply when I answer the phone. I’m amazed she can do this on her own but even more so because she uses an old dial telephone.

Her parents found it somewhere, taught her how to use it and gave her my phone number. It’s her very own phone now. I know this because she told me on her first call.

Usually, after her polite query into my health, she asks if we can Skype. That’s an operation she hasn’t conquered yet, and a parent is summoned to facilitate.

She lives two provinces away, and it allows me to read a story or she can show me the latest new thing in her world.

When my brother and I learned how to use the phone, we were 10 and 11 years old. I didn’t have the same feelings of casual acceptance that Lucy displays, but the phone was much different back then.

One day, James and I were heading outside to play after lunch. Our parents and two older sisters would soon be leaving for Lloydminster for groceries and errands.

As he and I passed the kitchen table, bearing down on the door and general mayhem outside, Mom stopped us.

She had just remembered a box she wanted to tick in her head. “You’re old enough to start answering the phone if someone calls while we’re away,” she said.

We stopped in our tracks. To learn that we now somehow qualified to take charge of the dinosaur on the wall was news we hadn’t expected. Furthermore, our mother was clearly imagining we’d be in the house to answer it. We said nothing and listened while we adjusted to our new promotion. We soon realized there was a responsibility weighing on such a station.

“You know our ring — two shorts and a long — so, when you hear our ring, just lift the receiver and say hello.”

Fine. This much, I knew. “OK,” I said and resumed progress to the door.

But there was more.

“Now, if you have to make a call — if you need help and have to call Mrs. Ferguson — just lift the receiver and turn the crank one short and two longs. Mrs. Ferguson is on our line — you know that — and that’s how you call someone on our line. That is, if you know their ring, but you already know the Ferguson’s ring, so call them. They’re the closest neighbours and can come over right away.”

Being on a party line, we knew the rings of each member of our party. We’d hear the phone ring in a particular way and Mom or Dad might say, “oh, I was just going to call the Smiths but now I’ll have to wait because someone just rang the Fergusons,” or whichever ring it was that had sounded.

“OK,” I said and took another step. Behind me, James mimicked my motions, taking a step when I did, but our mother wasn’t done yet.

“Now if you have to call someone not on our line, that’s different.”

We stopped again.

“Then you press the button on the side and turn the crank all the way around two or three times. Wait for Mrs. Lucas to answer. She’ll say, ‘number please,’ and you tell her the number you want. The list of numbers is on that paper beside the phone. Or, you can just tell her the name of the person and she’ll connect you.”

Behind me, James said, “we can do it.” He sounded as if we’d just been handed a mission to accompany Laura Secord from Queenstown to Beaver Dams to warn British soldiers of impending American attack. I looked at him. His eyes swiveled from Mom to the door, plainly his actual focus.

This telephone found at Kinder Surprise Antiques in Davidson, Sask., is similar to the one in the author’s childhood home. | Sherri Hathaway photo

I glanced across the table to the phone on the wall. All at once, the formerly innocuous brown wooden box now glared out at me — big, hostile and imposing. I wasn’t so sure I’d remember all those instructions and furthermore, that I wanted to talk to anyone on that contraption. Any other time it rang, answering always fell to one of our parents or older sisters. I think I even saw it grinning at me.

“OK, you can go.” Our mother ticked that box in her head and dismissed us.

We raced outside, forgetting our freshly minted passage into adulthood. After an hour or so, we heard the car doors slam, the car drive away and we continued our play. We didn’t make it into the house until suppertime when someone called us, and we certainly never thought of listening for the phone to ring. I don’t think I had the courage to answer the phone for another year or so, and absolutely never made a call for another couple years, at least. It wasn’t too long after this that dial phones took over, and no one was more relieved to see it happen than me.

Talking to our grandparents, living in Vancouver, was the only time my brother and I used the big, wall contraption. After our parents talked to them a while, they’d call us over to take our turn. When we were four or five, they let us stand on a chair to get our faces close enough to the mouthpiece and held the receiver to our ear for us. “Speak louder,” they reminded us. As we grew taller, we could take charge of the receiver ourselves, but since we saw Grandma and Grandpa every three years or so, it was hard to think of something to say on both ends of the line, and it was a stilted conversation. Long distance calls cost money then and were not made often. Christmas and birthdays were the extent of it.

With today’s instant communication, distance doesn’t prevent grandparents from watching the little ones grow up. Unlike my complicated childhood experience with telephones, I’m thankful my granddaughter easily learned how to call me and does so regularly, anytime of the day, and asks if we can Skype.

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