Friday, April 2, 2010


One of the most vivid memories I had of my childhood is Aunt Letty's big, black phone, which must have weighed 50 pounds. This was in the late 70s and I used to wonder what the thing was for. I remember seeing people lifting its handset, rotating its dial, and poised in that unforgettable stance, waiting for something on the other side. After a moment, their faces would light up and they'd say, "Hello?"

Hello, as I later on would discover, is a meaningless adult password to the thing. It's a generic greeting for the creature on the other side of the line. The Oxford English Dictionary cites it as an "exclamation used as a greeting or to begin a telephone conversation." Apparently, its origin is closely related to the word, "holla", which, in the olden times, was used as a shout to call the attention of someone. Understandably, the word finds usefulness in a telephone setting. Imagine picking up a phone, dialing a number, and not saying anything at all when the party on the other side picks up. Silence negates one's presence and in a phone conversation, silence could kill.

That's what I learned many, many years later. My childhood is a witness to a whole mass of stories of people centered on that big, black phone. It was a mystery to me at how the thing could elicit an interesting motley of responses. People crying, people laughing, people whispering, people shouting, people frowning, eyes twitching, hands waving, teeth gritting. At one time, I saw someone who, after having an alternately calm and distressing conversation, suddenly went silent, and stood there beside the phone for what seemed like an eternity. The party on the other side must have replaced the receiver a long time ago when she began sobbing and crying in that wretched tone I would never forget in my life. 

After that, I have always wondered what could be on the other side that made people disappear or wish to disappear. An older male cousin once remarked that, after having a phone conversation, he'd like to just stop living. At one time, I saw another aunt joyfully shed tears after hearing her son's voice on the line and declared she was then ready to die. When someone banged the phone forcefully on its cradle enough to cause the ground to tremble, I was convinced that the thing had a power of its own. It did not break. It did not shatter. The thing remained in the center of the living room, majestically placed on a white, carefully crocheted linen atop the nicest table on the house. It sat there for everyone to gather around, and they did. And people cried, wept, laughed over it, through it, with it.

Of course, that was a long time ago and things are on an altogether different plane now. The things I have imagined in my childhood are now part of our routine. When my cousins and I imagined about a phone being able to project our image and that of the other party on the line, it was a just a fleeting moment of juvenile delight over things impossible. And when we imagined a world without boundaries, where we could hop over oceans, discover other playmates in other towns, make new friends in other countries, transmit childish love letters in an instant, we thought we were just children imagining a fanciful, magical world.

Now, it's all happening. We have arrived at a strange, new world that is as vast as the oceans that separate us, where we are elaborately tied in a knot of wires, dot coms, pixels, and bytes. The huge phone is no longer king but is a token nonetheless of memories gone but kept safe within each of our story.

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