At twelve, I ached for my own phone line. The minute I read, eyebrows-raised, that Kristi had a line of her own for her Baby Sitter’s Club, my heart was set. The privacy! The secrecy! The hours and hours I could spend without the threat of my mother’s polite but firm “Jennifer, I need to use the phone” breaking into my call, or the snicker of my sister at the other end, having picked up surreptitiously earlier in the conversation.
“Please,” I begged my parents, who barely acknowledged the plea at the dining room table with a dismissive glance before: “Pass the peas, Jennifer.”
I’d known that the entreaty was farfetched. I was one of five kids, and my sisters were a bunch of copycats. If I somehow finagled one, my sisters would be begging for the same, and the likelihood that my parents would pay for six separate lines was nil, especially when we were asked to share things like hair blow dryers (“but Liz takes forever!!!”) and only permitted two controllers for the Nintendo despite the fact that there were four ports, meaning that we had to ration out usage like Soviet-era Russians in a breadline.
There was this reality, and then the fact that my parents held us to strict phone etiquette rules in the house. For one thing, my mother did not tolerate phone calls after nine at night.
“It’s nine p.m., Patty,” I once heard her sternly say to my friend, who had errantly called on the late side. “You can talk to Jennifer tomorrow.” I distinctly remember this because the fact that my mother had said “nine pee em,” spelling out the evening designation underscored her muted outrage at the audacity of the call.
What’s more, we were trained at a young age to answer home phone calls with “Hello, Nurmi residence, may I help you?”, as if we were switchboard attendants in a hotel or something. My cheeks burned when I’d answer from one of the upstairs phones, all of which lacked caller ID (will it date me if I say that we had a rotary phone in our house?! Eeep! I’m ancient!) , and I’d hear one of my brother’s friends (eligible bachelors all, to my eyes!) pause in surprise and then reply: “Uh, yeah, is Tom home?”
Once, when my mother was out of earshot, I answered the phone: “Hello?” And it felt brusque, curt, ungenerous — and above all, deeply wrong. I bristled at the sound of my own voice. Thereafter, I retreated to our appointed rote reply when picking up any and all inbound calls.
All this to say: even if I weren’t one of five, my own phone line, with my own phone rules, was not likely going to fly in my parents’ house.
I’ve been reflecting on the nuances of my family’s phone call protocols because a few weeks ago, a friend called me on a Friday afternoon to apologize for something she’d said. As it turned out, it was an entirely unnecessary apology. She was the friend who had told me that another friend of hers had decided to take a job after having a baby in order to “remain interesting” to her husband. She’d read my post and had felt sick that she had caused me heartache.
I missed her call, though, that Friday afternoon. I was sprinting up Amsterdam to a doctor’s appointment and told myself I’d call her back after. But then we played phone tag and I didn’t hear her apology until two or three weeks later, when we sat next to one another on an uptown-bound 1 train, and she paused, turned to me, cleared her throat, and said: “So I have to apologize for something.”
I was so touched by her sentiment that I wrote her a thank you note for the apology, as over-the-top as that sounds. It wasn’t until I was checking out at Whole Foods earlier this week that I realized why the entire episode had moved me so profoundly. As I waited in the queue, I observed a young woman talking loudly on her cellphone while a cashier was ringing her up. The conversation did not seem urgent: “Yeah, Jack said he could come…what are you wearing?” An invisible wall divided this woman and the wage-worker ringing her up. The scene looked brusque, curt, ungenerous — and above all, deeply wrong.
There it was. The repetition of something from decades earlier: my spurning of the phone call decorum my parents had instilled in me in favor of an abbreviated, huffy “hello?” It dawned on me then that many of the “advances” in telecommunications we have seen over the past few decades — though they may have been designed to make us more reachable — have in fact driven people apart. They have paved the way for rudenesses, alienations, and missed opportunities. You see, it was not only my friend’s conscientiousness, the fact that my evident discomfort had caused her distress, that moved me. It was her grace in not just texting or emailing, but picking up the phone and calling me to let me know she was sorry for it. The medium is the message: when I saw her name on my phone, I knew something was up. But I silenced the call, deciding, in a flash, that timeliness for my appointment was more important.
Was it, though?
What would have happened if I had paused for a beat and answered? I might have been three or four minutes late. Or I might have been able to simply say: “I am running to an appointment, but wanted to make sure you were OK,” and been none the later.
But I silenced her call and I missed the opportunity to receive her timely and thoughtful albeit unnecessary apology. Instead, she carried that weight around with her for two weeks until another opportunity presented itself.
And so I have resolved, at the ripe age of thirty-four, that I will just pick up the phone. Even when it seems inconvenient, or when it might set me back a minute or two. How hard is it to quickly explain if I’m heading somewhere? How busy am I that I can’t spare an extra minute to confirm that everything is OK with a friend?
Personal phones and caller ID accommodate procrastination, selective listening, and selfishness. They enable us to decide if and when we want to receive news. They empower us to put things off, to hold difficult conversations at bay, to avoid people. Yes, there are conveniences: I, too, enjoy silencing solicitations. (When we sold our house, we received hundreds of calls from interested realtors pitching their services. It drove us insane.) And there are legitimate reasons to silence a call, of course. But these technologies also provide us with an easy out, a safety net: “Oops, running twenty minutes late,” we can write in a text, whereas two decades ago, we’d probably be more motivated toward timeliness for appointments so as not to worry our hosts. They enable us to craft responses carefully, guardedly, via text, disabusing us of the art of conversation, of handling difficult topics head-on. They have enabled us to hide and deflect. Worse, they have made me a lazy friend and sibling. “I’ll call her later, when I have more time,” I’ve been guilty of saying to myself. Why later? Why not now? What if I am needed? There is no time like the present. Pick.up.the.phone.
And come to think of it, maybe a communal home line wasn’t such a bad thing after all either, my twelve-year old yearnings be damned. Sharing a line taught me patience and courtesy. It was a daily reminder of my non-centricity: I was just one of five children. My desires were always held at cross-purposes with those of my siblings, and it was up to us to negotiate fair phone use rules. Meanwhile, the discipline of answering home calls with my parents’ designated reply was a good primer in hospitality: “how may I help you?” signified that I should always receive others with warmth.
I realize that I am achieving new levels of luddite-ness with this post, but I’ll leave you with this: at twelve, I longed for nothing more than a personal line on which to fritter away my time connecting with friends. At thirty-four, I have a personal line I carry in my pocket, and I have shamefully used it to avoid connecting with others. I have silenced calls, sat on text messages, puttered away on Instagram while in a waiting room or standing in line instead of interacting with those around me. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that something has gone haywire in this equation, and I need to correct it.
From now on, I will just pick up.
I have several brand events in the evenings this upcoming week (who am I, a blogger or something?!), and I’ve been hunting for looks that look festive without being formal. Below, some finds:
+I ordered this festive blouse for one of the occasions. I knew immediately what I wanted to wear jewelry-wise with it: heart-earrings. I’ve been seeing them all over the place, including these on my super-chic friend Jen earlier this week! I had fallen in love with these by Alessandra Rich a few weeks earlier, but they sold out all over the web — so was delighted to find a pair in the perfect colorway to complement my new blouse! Ordered! I also considered these (<<absolutely adore her stuff; a bargain for the quality!) and these (a steal!)
+I also considered this plaid tinsel top (restocked!) and actually ordered but had to return this tartan Petersyn asymmetric top (<<this brand runs a little big; it would have required substantial alterations to make it fit properly!) I had thought it would look incredible with black skinnies, black pumps, and big black bow earrings.
+For the other event, I knew I wanted a statement sweater. DailyCupofCouture introduced me to the brand Philosophy Di Lorenzo Serafini earlier this week, and I am smitten with their knitwear, all of which features the most darling feminine details. I love this sweater, this ruffled and ribbed one, and the IDEA of this exaggerated-shoulder one (I worry that the proportions of the latter would dwarf me IRL).
+A couple of other Philosophy-inspired finds in either more wearable shapes or at better price-points: this frilled-shoulder beauty, this open-knit stunner, this bow-cuffed cozy (also available in a fun dress format), or this exaggerated-sleeve style. You could really nail the Philosophy vibe by buying one of their rose brooches and affixing it to any of the sweaters above! (Or imagine it on a Chanel-esque tweed blazer!) Also: this gauzey blouse (on sale!) screams Philosophy!
+I shared this epic Zimmermann sweater a couple weeks back, and I still dream of it. This sweater nails the vibe for far less. Caveat emptor: I find that the quality of any of the designs from Chicwish, SheIn, and Choies (which — are they actually the same company?) can vary greatly. I have found some incredible steals there that look a lot more expensive than they are, but — buyer beware! Some are very poorly made with cheap fabric.
+As a stripe lover, I lingered for some time over this Self-Portrait statement and this on-trend Veronica Beard (on SUPER sale!) Also love the slouchy fit and gleaming buttons of this Zara steal! Would look amazing with black skinnies and high heels or booties.
+Though I’m usually inclined toward my standard black skinnies, I also considered these velvet joggers (so fun!) and these scarf-print pants, which I probably would wear with this trim-fit, puff-sleeved sweater (marked WAY down to under $30!).
+For accessories: how impossibly chic are these booties (<<on sale!)? For those of us who, ya know, have babies and find heel heights above three inches too daunting: THESE are incredible! (More bows, I know!) And this headband could make a statement on all its own with #allblackerrything else.
P.S. I ordered this candle on the recommendation of SO many of you in response to my holiday post and it has not disappointed! Love the smell — wintry without being too over-the-top. The predominant scent is fir. Love! I am thinking of buying a bunch of these votive versions and wrapping them up in cello bags with a big white satin bow to bring as hostess gifts for holiday gatherings. (Already have two on my calendar for early December!)
P.P.S. In case you need the reminder today: you are enough.
P.P.P.S. Reflections on siblinghood.