The news came while I was at work, courtesy of a text message from my wife. It was not unexpected. We had been discussing the issue for months, but it took a surprising amount of courage to see our decision through to its implementation. Staring at my phone, I sighed with the knowledge that what was done was done, and life would never be quite the same. “It’s official,” read the message. “Our land line is no more!”
Maintaining a phone line into our home was costing us $420 a year, an expense that was hard to justify now that everyone in our family of four carries a dedicated cell phone. There were few advantages to keeping things as they were. We did liked the peace of mind that came with communication redundancy, the smug assurance that should sun spots interfere with satellites and cell towers, we still had a sure-fire means of making and receiving calls. Also, it was easier to have someone just pick up an extension rather than engineering a three-way cell phone call. And it’s nice to hear the phone ringing throughout the house and be able to answer it quickly without being tethered to a device. But $420 for such luxuries? We realized that never would we have taken on the expense as a new expenditure, and it became clear that we were keeping a land line mostly because we had always had one. Not much of a rationale for spending money that could be better used elsewhere.
So why was our beneficial decision accompanied by subtle shades of melancholy?
I suspect the answer begins in our early childhood. As we prepared to enter kindergarten, our parents anticipated our emerging independence and sought to make us as secure as we had always been while under their watch. They tried to equip us to deal with unexpected crises, such as finding oneself lost among strangers. To that end, we were drilled again and again to clearly state our name, address and phone number. We repeated the vital information until we knew it reflexively, and over the years we were called upon ever more frequently to write what we had memorized onto various documents. For my wife and me, our efforts were a sound investment that continued to pay off well into our adult lives. Our parents never moved into another house, never changed their familiar phone numbers. And in my case, that phone number that I memorized when I was 5 years old still connects me to the parents who taught it to me.
A couple months shy of our second anniversary, Julie and I purchased the house in which we live today. Maybe it was because we had both grown up without ever having known the experience of moving, but I sensed an inevitable permanence in our residence, a new build with no prior inhabitants. No one had lived here before, and I automatically assumed that we would be the sole owners until we reached such an age that the house no longer suited our needs. We were in it for the long haul, if circumstance allowed it. When it came time to arrange our phone service, it seemed like we were about to be given another legendary sequence of seven numbers, a pattern that would be burned into our minds and those of our future children just as surely as we could still recall the phone numbers of our respective homesteads.
I never expected to have any say in determining the septet of digits that would connect callers to our new home, but it turned out that I was allowed to play a small role. The phone company representative informed me that we had moved into an area that was serviced by three different numerical prefixes, and I could choose whichever one I wanted, if indeed it made any difference to me at all. She rattled off my choices, and one of them stood out: 777. I liked the idea of having a prefix composed of the same repeated digit. It would be easy for everyone to memorize: for us, our family, our friends, and one day – our children. The representative gave me the rest of the number: 4765. I went about repeating our new phone number for a few minutes. 777-4765. 777-4765. 777-4765. Like the house itself, there seemed an inevitability about it. It had an appealing rhythm and sounded almost like I had always known it. 777-4765, the number we would always have.
A few years later, we were a family of four. As our daughters grew older and began to assert their independence, we followed the example of our parents and taught the girls to recite our phone number. Meanwhile, our right hands developed a muscle memory for the seven digits that we wrote down again and again on various forms, applications, and correspondence. “Has anything changed?” we were often asked when visiting our doctors, dentists and veterinarians, and the answer was always, “No.” We still lived in the same house. You could still reach us at the same number.
Somehow, in some illogical and overly sentimental fashion, it seems as though we have betrayed a comforting fragment of our illusory permanence. The world has changed in a way that we never anticipated. When we were growing up, there was one number that everyone who knew us could use to reach any desired member of the family. Sure, you might have to talk to someone else first and ask for the person with whom you wished to converse, but one number worked for all of us. Never did we dream that the yards of telephone cabling that traversed the frames of our homes would ever be any less essential than the plumbing pipes or electrical wires. The very idea of everyone carrying a personal, portable phone was as remote as Dick Tracy’s two-way wristwatch.
And perhaps in this age of electronic isolation, there is something sad about our family losing something that we once shared, even if it is nothing more than a silly number.
So long, 777-4765. If it were up to me, you’d be officially retired from service, your legendary digits embroidered on a banner that would hang from the basement rafters. Then one day, we’d ask our visiting grandchildren to power down their onboard communication devices and observe with us a moment of silence in your memory. “Once upon a time,” we’d croak, “every family had just one phone number…”