One of the last things on my "to do" list before I put my dog in the car and head out to my new life in Northern California will be to unplug the telephone. I will do this at the last possible moment for a variety of reasons. I always want to be available to take the call from Ed McMahon, for example. And it would be pleasant to decline one last offer for a burial plot or a credit card. But the real reason I will put off the task is that I'll be saying goodbye to the seven digits that have been my family's phone number for the last 53 years.
When I give a little pinch to the plastic coupling that links me to those numbers, I will be pulling the plug on a lifetime of family news and history that traveled to and from that phone line. I hope I am up to the task.
I don't want to be too dramatic about it, but there's some history here. The number entered our lives in 1946 when my father was sent from New York to Washington by United Press; he and his young family occupied a two-bedroom apartment in Alexandria's Park Fairfax for something close to $60 a month.
Initially our phone number was a "party line," meaning we shared it with one of our neighbors and that incoming calls rang in both houses. Each family had a pre-designated series of fire-alarm-level rings: two long rings for us, two shorts for them. In our house, those notes emanated from the base of a black monolith of a machine with a half-inch-thick, unforgivingly short wire that disappeared into the wall.
The receiver was so cumbersome that I was 8 before I could lift it with only one hand; but the effort was worth the trouble. Once its clock-face rotary dial was prodded into action by a sturdy index finger, some particularly satisfying whirrs and clicks ensued.
Party line aside, having a telephone in the house also was a status symbol, and our behemoth was honored by my mother in two ways: It was given its own sturdy table and chair -- using it was a serious business that required you to take a seat -- and it rested atop a hand-crocheted doily, possibly to give the illusion that this equipment on loan from Mother Bell was not only functional but somehow decorative.
Perhaps because my mother had been one of the first telephone operators in New York City in the 1930s, she felt some responsibility to show the proper respect.
Over the years our telephone and its randomly chosen numbers came to hold deeply personal connections for our family. It was over this phone line that my mother, pregnant with me and desperately homesick, often called her sister back home in Yonkers.
Ten years later, at the height of the Cold War, the wire brought us my father's voice from inside the Soviet Union. He was now the public relations director at the National Association of Home Builders and was guiding a group of American builders around Russia to see first-hand how people lived in that country.
I recall my mother straining to hear his distant words of comfort, assuring her he would be home soon.
In 1957, just before Christmas, our great Black Bear carried the news to family and friends that my mother had died of a stroke at age 45.
It's the phone number I put on my college applications, and the one my three kids put on theirs. It was number I called when I needed money; and the one my children dial when they do. It was the number on the reply cards that accompanied my wedding invitations; the number over which my brother announced the arrival of the family's first grandchild; the number I called when my daughter was born and, six years later, when I learned I was expecting twins.
From this phone line I've called countless plumbers, taxicabs, babysitters, veterinarians and massage therapists. I've even called a few future employers.
Our cherished phone number nearly slipped away from us on two occasions. When my father moved into the District in the late 1970s, the digits had to be rescued by my brother, the only other family member still in Virginia. Fortunately, by the time he moved to New York in the early 1980s, I was living in Del Ray, and the Alexandria Seven have been nesting here safely ever since.
I understand that a person completely unknown to me will actually do the awful deed on my moving day. I picture cold, calloused fingers carelessly throwing a switch -- without malice, but neither with remorse. Desperately short of phone numbers as we are in this overpopulated area, my family's phone number probably will be back in service within a few short weeks. But I wonder: Shouldn't I be allowed some say in what happens to it? What if, after 53 years of loyal service, it gets relegated to the status of a cell phone or, worse, a fax machine? I want to know that it's going to some nice family with kids and a mortgage and will not have to do time transmitting a series of beeps and screeches or some guy muttering, "let's take a meeting." It deserves better!
I've thought of calling the phone company, but who exactly is the phone company now? Somewhere within the ample bosom of Ma Bell, shouldn't there exist a Hall of Fame where phone numbers such as ours are etched on small gold plaques and given a well-deserved rest after the load they've carried? If I could find "the person in charge," I would suggest that our Seven be retired with full honors, an inspiration to the phone company (of which my mother was a pioneer) and its employees.
At the very least, shouldn't I be given a gold connector to link the old numbers to my new ones in California?
Well, I guess not. The old Black Bear has been replaced with a series of featherweight phones that do all kinds of tricks, some of which are useful. Not one merits its own table and chair, though, let alone a hand-crocheted doily.
The phone I will unplug on moving day is attached somewhat precariously to the kitchen wall and will come away easily with one snap, so fragile compared with the heavily wrapped wire of my childhood phone.
How will I feel about my new numbers, I wonder, when I write them down and commit them to memory? I hope I like them. But, like many of the old friends I now leave behind, I know I will never forget the old ones. They are my numbers for life.