“Sarah, get OFF the PHONE!” my sister, Emma, huffed angrily. Stomping down the hall, she yelled: “MOM! I’m expecting a call and Sarah’s been on the phone for HOURS!”
“Both of you get off the line,” my mother replied, “I need to email my sister.” These lovingly screamed phrases were the soundtrack of my youth. Twenty-five years ago, before cell phones were as common as candy bars, most houses only had one phone line. Imagine sharing your cell phone with four people — it would be chaos! Now, imagine that your shared cell phone didn’t have caller ID, voicemail, or free long-distance calling, and you’ll know how I suffered as a tween.
A single phone line used to be enough; the only calls that came were for my parents (okay, they were for my mom). With caller ID still a distant dream, you took your chances every time you picked up the phone. Would it be a telemarketer? A salesman? Or your dreaded Aunt Edeltraut, who would blather on about her bunions before you could make an excuse to get Mom on the phone? We also didn’t have an answering machine, so every incoming call triggered a sprint to the phone before the ringing stopped. If you missed the call, you were out of luck. It could’ve been Elvis Presley on the other end, and you’d never know.
Phone calls started trickling in for my sister, which annoyed me to no end. I wasn’t her secretary! Once, when she was out, eleven different people called her in two hours. Each time, I wrote down someone’s name and number, and my frustration boiled over. On the twelfth call, I yanked up the receiver and screamed “WHO IS IT??” only to hear the extremely shocked voice of my mother’s friend, Judy. After a well-deserved lecture, I apologized profusely and hoped she wouldn’t tell my mom about my rudeness. I’m still alive, so I assume she didn’t.
Long distance calls were expensive and irregular. It wasn’t unusual to get a call at three in the morning, because your European relatives miscalculated the time difference. In fifteen years, my old-world German grandmother called our house once. Unfortunately, she called on April Fool’s Day, and I spent twenty minutes screaming at my mom to come inside and get the phone because her mother wanted to talk to her. Eventually, my mom reluctantly, slowly, walked into the house, convinced I was pranking her. The surprise on her face when she picked up the phone was priceless.
When we recently moved into our new house, I insisted on getting a land line. So far the only calls we’ve had have been robo-scammers and a wrong number. The home phone makes me feel safer, even though it’s kept on top of the pantry because Andy loves mashing the buttons and once called Belgium.
I’m glad cell phones were invented. There was nothing worse than having to answer the phone in the middle of your favorite TV show. Now, I can simply ignore who’s calling without moving at all. Video calling means I can see friends and family from oceans away, without struggling to remember their appearance (did Maria have a nose ring? Or was that Brenda? No, Brenda had buckteeth.)
Cell phones mean you’re reachable almost anywhere in the world, from the Himalayas to the bathroom at your cousin’s bar mitzvah. The excuse “I didn’t get your message,” doesn’t work anymore, because whomever you’re avoiding will just reply “really? I emailed it to you, texted you, called you, left a voicemail, and sent a carrier pigeon,” while you grimace uncomfortably. Despite their drawbacks, (such as short battery lives and screens that crack when you sneeze too hard) cell phones are a great invention. Keeping in touch with my extended family has never been easier; now if only I could get Aunt Edeltraut to stop calling me about her bunions!