Mourning the loss of my old phone number

yellow wall mounted rotary phone

By Jonathan Meyer

My mom disconnected her landline on Monday. It sounds strange, but it caused a rather visceral, emotional reaction in my brain. That number, 555-9794, had been our family’s phone number since we moved to that house in the summer of 1981, forty years ago. I was quickly taught to memorize that number and, if I was ever in trouble, I knew I could call that number or give it to an adult to call Mom and Dad for me. I wrote that number countless times for friends, teachers, and oodles of paperwork over the years. 

I called it even more than I wrote it. When baseball practice ended early, I fished the quarter (“Always carry a quarter in case you have to call home!” Mom said) out of my shoe. I knew the number to call. When I forgot my homework, or my pants ripped at recess, or we made it to the State marching contest finals so we would be late getting back home, or the car didn’t want to start, I dialed on auto-pilot.

When I went to college and got my own landline phone, those seven numbered buttons grew shiny from use. I called home to cry, to brag, to hear a friendly voice, to ask for a little extra money in my account. Years later, when our kids were born, I called that number long-distance to say “Grandma and Grandpa” for the first time. The morning my dad died and I got the message, I didn’t have to see through my tear-swollen eyes to call Mom back—my fingers knew just what to do.

Originally, it was a party line. If you don’t know what a party line is, you literally shared a telephone line with other people. You could hear each other’s conversations. If you were stealthy, and picked up your receiver very carefully, you might get all sorts of useful—or totally useless— information about the neighbor’s teenage daughter’s newest love interest. Of course, she might also hear what you were saying, so you had to keep a sharp ear out for a slight “click” that meant a new listener was on the line. If the neighbor was on the line, you had to wait ’til they were done, or if the conversation dragged on and on, you would start picking up your receiver and replacing it less and less gently. It was a passive-aggressive form of telephone road rage that only party-line users understood.

Our phone was ’70s goldenrod color, almost the size of a shoe box, mounted to the wall, and had a six-foot spiral cord (which could stretch to about ten feet) that connected the receiver to the main unit. It was heavy plastic and when you held that thing to your ear for too long, your arm started to go numb and you would switch hands—and ears!—to let circulation flow. To make a call, you picked the receiver up from its cradle, listened for a “hum” called a dial tone, and dialed the number. Yes, dialed, as in “turn.” Our phone was rotary—no buttons at all. You stuck your finger in a hole correlating to the needed digit and turned the disc clockwise. As it cycled back around, counterclockwise to its resting place, it made a slight “whir” sound and a series of clicks. Somehow, these magically and mysteriously translated into someone—my friend, our other neighbor, the lady selling eggs, Mickan’s shop, or school—knowing we were calling them and then answering.

And, if you were angry—really angry—you had the satisfaction of pounding that receiver on the counter, slapping it against your open palm, or even slamming it back in the cradle so that the person on the other end of the call knew just *how* mad you were at them. Nothing punctuated a conversation’s end like a slammed phone.

When I was in college, Dad upgraded to a private line and then to a push-button phone that made tones, not clicks, when dialing. It sounds corny, now, but that was about a fifty year tech leap in our house. The phone was sleek and low profile, with an LCD screen that told you both the number you were calling or the number calling you, and sat on a cabinet. And when he added an answering machine, we thought we were in high cotton. 

After Dad passed, Mom built a house in the same town and moved her number with her. Come to think of it, I think the same phone moved, too. It was a comfort to me knowing that, even though there was a new address to learn and some new directions to follow, if I got lost (not likely in our small town, but you get the idea) I knew who and what to dial.

That number is now in the hands of someone else, I guess. Mom said “no one” used it anymore —everyone uses her cell number or texts. I asked, what was I – chopped liver? She said, not exactly, but I was definitely in the minority. With it so rarely used, it was an unnecessary expense. Like Blockbuster, Pontiac, and last week’s leftovers, the landline had outlived its usefulness. It was time for it to go. And, unlike Christmas fruitcake, numbers don’t get saved by phone companies for memory’s sake. Numbers get repurposed, reused and recycled.

Maybe someday I’ll call and find out who has it, now that Mom doesn’t. Maybe I’ll tell them about the five people who called that number “ours.” Maybe I’ll tell them about the phone calls made from and to that number. Maybe I’ll wish them best of luck in making and getting their own memory-making phone calls.

But not today. Today, I’m in mourning. It’ll never have the fame of 867-5309, but 555-9794 will always hold a special place in my memory, my finger tips and my heart. But, I guess I best get busy learning Mom’s cell number.

Jonathan Meyer is a husband, father, pastor, amateur woodworker, and recovering English major. He is also a son who loves to call and talk to his mom on the phone. 

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