Exploring their New iPhones, Mom and Dad Recall the Days of Party Lines

Mom large iphone

Last night I helped my parents activate their new iPhones. It was like watching two kids under a Christmas tree. Dad was loading stock ticker symbols into the Stocks app while Mom texted a photo of him to Jesse, her grandson in Brooklyn. Dad used a blue rubber-tipped stylus, and Mom tapped with a slim, precise forefinger. They spent the evening exploring apps and features without ever making a phone call.

This morning I showed them how to receive and make calls, which led to Mom’s recalling her summer job 68 years ago, when she was sixteen, running the phone switchboard in Sudbury, Massachusetts. I turned on Voice Recorder on my iPhone to capture her story, beginning with her description of what the operator would see when a call came in to the switchboard:

The board before her had all the numbers in town on it, you see, and then a little flap, a little cover would flip down, and then it went “Brrrr” so she’d know that we wanted the operator. Then she’d take her cord, and she’d plug it in and she’d say “Number please.” And then I’d say the number, and then she’d take the second cord and put it where it was going, and then ring with a little lever.

And then sometimes when you wanted to find somebody and you couldn’t, people would call up and they’d know my voice and they’d say, “Oh Lois, can you tell me where Forest Bradshaw is? He’s not home.” And I’d say, “Well, Forest just called in from the Town Hall.” And we sort of found people for them, because we knew everybody’s voice.

If it was slow, we could listen in on anybody who was talking. We tried not to do that. But then it was a volunteer fire department, and if there was a fire we had to call all the volunteers. We’d ring them and say, “Len Stiles, there’s a fire up at Rice’s farm,” and we had to do that all over the town and get all the fire department out.

Before smartphones and dumb phones, there were party lines. You shared your phone line with other people, which in my father’s case posed special challenges. His family lived just up the road from my mother’s in Sudbury. “He had a terrible party line,” she said, “because he had the biggest gossip in town, and she was always on the phone–and she had three daughters. His house could never get the line!”

Dad Len iphone

Helping Dad with his iPhone 5S

I asked Dad if his family ever cut into a call to say they needed the line. “You could,” he replied, “but it wasn’t really etiquette to do that. We all had to put up with party lines, and it could have worked against us.” Mom added, “If it was an emergency, if somebody was croaking, you could butt in.”

And on it went, my parents laughing and recalling what it was like to use technology so far removed from what they held in the palms of their hands this morning. Watching them made me appreciate how new technology truly does seem like magic before it becomes ordinary. And the ease with which my parents, both in their eighties, explored their iPhones made me marvel at the genius of Apple’s design team. The magic powers of the 5S seemed natural and intuitive. They were having a ball.

“This is just like when you showed us the Macintosh,” Dad told me with a warm smile. That was nearly 30 years ago, in a hotel room when they were visiting me in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They’ve kept up pretty well with computers ever since, and now it’s the iPhone.

Mom asked Siri where the best surfing is near Brooklyn, New York, where Jesse and his fiancee moved recently from L.A. I helped her take a screen shot of the list that Siri made for her, including Uncle Funky’s Boards, and she texted it to him, cackling with laughter. “He’s going to think his grandmother is loopy,” she said as she tapped on Send.

Last night, after I’d texted a photo of Mom and Dad using their iPhones to my youngest daughter, she texted back, “Oh boy! Wait till they discover FaceTime…”

There is no turning back, thank goodness. And the magic continues.

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