September 13, 2013

As a lifelong Washingtonian, no one is prouder than my dad when my byline pops up in the Sunday Post. He has asked, however, that when I mention him, I do so in ways that don’t suggest that he is, shall we say, old. (Dude: This summer, AARP invited two of your children to join.) Regardless of his age, though, Dad has always been old-school.

A memory came to me today, while walking with my friend Oksana. We were talking, as we often do, about everything. I mentioned that the adult children now living with me will not answer what I quaintly refer to as the “house phone.” To that generation of twenty-somethings, ringing phones are meaningless.

The other day, my sister complained about the fact that no one answers the phone when she calls (I do, I objected, and I’m sure I count. But I knew what she meant). I told her about the aversion to the house phone. “Don’t they understand,” she said, “it could be Dad?”

Answering the phone is a sore point for my father, who believes that any ringing phone should be answered immediately. He sometimes will call repeatedly because he simply cannot believe that a call could go unanswered. Oksana said that her parents were the same way and that any activity was suspended when the telephone rang.

One night recently, my father urgently needed to reach me, but I was at the movies and had my ringer off. He doesn’t leave messages and I hadn’t been checking for missed calls, so I didn’t know he’d been trying. When I got home, the phone was ringing, and I hustled to answer.

“Why haven’t you answered your phone?” Dad said.

“I was at the movies,” I said. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” he said. “But turn on PBS. They’re showing that Elvis Presley concert in Hawaii. Biggest show in the history of television.” Click.

My own brand of old-school behavior has kept me from learning how to operate the television in the living room. Instead, I YouTubed “Elvis Hawaii,” and then insisted that my 11-year-old, Ian, who was engrossed in Minecraft on a different computer, watch with me. He complained but complied.

I don’t know how it happened, but a few minutes later, we were watching Springsteen close down his Wrecking Ball Tour in Kilkenny, Ireland, in July. (Bruce: For years, I have exhorted my children that you, unlike their rap idols, are a creative artist who never stoops to bad words or misogyny. Why, oh why, did you drop an F-bomb in Kilkenny? Ian just looked at me and said, “See.”)

I shut down Bruce and called Dad, who always answers on the first ring, to say how much I had enjoyed the Elvis concert. I had watched part of it, and that was enough for me.

As it turns out, he and my mother were still watching it. How could I have enjoyed something that was, in his world, still on? He hung up, so I called my sister. She, too, was watching Elvis on PBS, and mentioned that just a few years later, the King would be dead.

We reminisced about that sad day. I was watching TV in our cool basement. In those days, when network television covered breaking news, it was momentous. Wars ended. Presidents resigned. A voice would intone, “We interrupt this broadcast with a breaking news alert,” and something critical would follow. On Aug. 16, 1977, the news was that Elvis Presley, 42, was dead.

I turned the TV off and raced upstairs, where I did the forbidden and interrupted my mother, who was on the phone in the kitchen.

I knew better, but I also knew that breaking news was urgent, and I knew that Elvis meant something to Mom. She cast the evil eye, but I persisted, so she covered the receiver and frowned.

“Elvis Presley died. The TV says he died in Graceland.”

After a few disbelieving moments, she repeated the news into the phone, and a tearful conversation ensued.

My sister remembers that day, too. She was across the street, babysitting; at some point, she said, all the disbelieving grown-ups, mostly mothers home with kids, were out in the street, crying.

In the so-called old days, phones contained their own magic, even if there was nothing smart about them. They were special instruments, and their use conferred certain rights and privileges upon the users. It was a big deal, for instance, when I was 6, and my father taught me how to dial my grandfather’s number — a lesson that I applied one Saturday morning at 6, just to show off how accomplished I was. When my grandmother moved to Australia in the early 1970s, we talked to her once or twice a year. A call at Christmas involved some advance work by all parties, scheduling a time with an operator, and then waiting for that call to connect us. The delay as our voices traveled tens of thousands of miles made for a hiccup in the conversation.

I was driving home the other day with Ian when the cellphone in my purse rang. Ian looked at the screen, said, “It’s Duck” — a.k.a., my dad — and moved to hand it to me.

“I’m driving!” I said. “What does he need?”

“To talk to you,” he said, again handing me the phone. My dad delivered a short message and I hung up. When I arrived at his house an hour later, I reminded him talking on hand-held phones while driving is illegal in Maryland. “Really?” he said. “I didn’t know.”

When it comes to not answering the phone, my children may have things (mostly) right; how strange it must seem to them that we ever jumped up when those rings sounded in our homes. My father will be damned if he believes this, but I persist: There are times when the ringing can wait. Unless it’s the bell that tolls, truly, for you.

Janice Lynch Schuster is a writer who lives in Riva, Md.