Oct 3, 2014

Phones that chatter

When the toddler's diaper trilled with my ring tone, I had only a fleeting moment of pause. In those sleep-deprived and semi-catatonic days, dredging up concern at anything past the bare necessities was beyond me. That my cutie's privates were ringing registered only as "So that's where my phone is."

almost 2 

Smart phones with touch screens were wishful thinking anyway back then, futuristic visions of day dreamers. My mobile phone needs were adequately served by a Nokia flip-phone anyway, with its minute key-pad and postage stamp screen. Steve Jobs had yet to tell us what we really wanted and our collective expectation from a phone was merely verbal communication. Besides, it earned it's keep to my mind by persevering admirably against a grabby toddler who was constantly flipping it open to burble "Hawo! Yes? Ish-pish-fish. Ayi-yi-yee. No-no. Ba-byeee!" 

(We called it 'Oyonese'. My husband was particularly skilled at deciphering it and even occasionally spoke it to the toddler's delight.) 

Tucking it into the front of his diaper/pant alternated with stashing it in the trunk of his ride-on car, so I was as accustomed to its frequent disappearances as I was to calling to locate it. Rarely was ANYone surprised at where the ring tone sounded from. Some interesting places we traced it to:
- inside a Dutch oven in my kitchen cabinet
- the LEGO tub
- a cookie tin (that i didn't know he could open until then) 
- and one time, the fridge. 

It's timeless, I guess, this need to posture a desirable future that seems too slow coming. I have memories of my own, of striking grown-up poses and enacting thrilling mimes with a jangly set of house keys (as well as an orange plastic ballpoint pen that lived on my fathers home office desk). And the phone.... but more on that in a bit.

All too often the magnitude of change in lifestyles since my childhood feels immense and awe-inspiring but I'm sure it is relative. Every lifetime will see its share of changes and it will always feel significant. What cloud technology and micro-electronics has done for us is comparable to the advent of trunk dialing (replacing telegrams) in my parents' lives. Interestingly, despite the convenience, cost-cutting ensured that in our Africa years (mid-70s), my parents sent audio messages home to family in India via tape cassettes. As clunky as that seems now, then, they marveling in how enriched lives everywhere were on this Great Leap Forward from dry, written missives. Our relatives taped their replies over ours on the same cassettes in keeping with the frugal common sense of the times and sent them back to us to complete one link in a long and loving chain of communication. What an amazing patchwork quilt of the oral/aural histories of our collective lives we inherited, as a result. 

So the appeal of phones and the premium placed on methods of communication have ample fodder in my memory. How, to little kids, it's second to no other symbol of parental privilege  and superiority. Computers covered with sticky finger marks in every home will appear to refute this claim but really - being able to speak with an INVISIBLE person through a piece of metal/plastic....how do you beat that for magic?!

And as with everything in these days of my dotage, I travelled back to my own toddler days. 

I am 2(ish) in the picture below, just like my son in the picture above. My brother is 7. This is Nairobi, Kenya.

The boxy black phone that my mom is holding lived on the landing at the head of the stairs. In my long hours at home with Maa, this sight (above) was a familiar one. She was always working those day: cooking, cleaning, washing but with a song on her lips and often, laughter. Occasionally a fellow Indian from the small expat community in Nairobi would call for a chat. She would sit down for a rest and with her long hair trailing carelessly down her back, laugh and joke away a stolen hour. 

I, of course, needed to be part of that action. With Dada ('older brother' in Bengali) away at school, companion AND entertainment choices petered out quickly and led me, inevitably whining, to her. If one of her phone chats was underway, one of my favorite toys in memory would appear: a chatter phone. It wheeled along on a pull-string with a satisfactory clacking sound, eyes rolling endearingly up and down as a voice chattered words I've long forgotten.Too babyish for Dada, it was wholly my thing. Not the least because it assumed a very serious role whenever Maa got on her fancy, working phone that I must not touch. This marvel of brightly colored, virtually indestructible plastic was MY exclusive phone and SHE wasn't allowed to touch it. So there! 

I have the clearest memory of being shot through with delight as I rolled out the phone, positioned myself close to her then held own important conversations of my own. I want to imagine that I turned my back on her in carefully cultivated nonchalance and defiance but I can't really be sure. I can however, easily recall it's jolly voice and enticing plasticky smell.

That IDENTICAL telephone resurfaced when we visited a toy store recently to shop for a birthday party. I couldn't believe my eyes. Hadn't seen in it 40 odd years and now here it was. That it's now a 'Classic Toy' didn't depreciate it's value a bit. It did however make me pause a moment to admire the shrewd marketing strategy that acknowledges the value of invoking nostalgia in parents who have wallet-control instead of lust in their direct but insolvent targets. 

I was dying to poke my finger in the rotary dial and give it a crank but I didn't. I wasn't sure what I'd hear the phone say. Whether the vivid memory of a happy chatter and all it's delightful associations of lazy childhood days of posturing and utter light, that had been shimmering in the back of my head for 40 years would dissipate in the clear light of day. 

I thought it best to leave it alone. 
Best to leave inscribed in my heart:
My beautiful, long haired mother flinging her head back in full throated laughter on the phone. 
My brother humming to himself, stretched out on the floor, parking his toy cars on the parquet floor (just the way my son now does). 
My Bapi, reading on the upstairs bed with the cassette player playing old Hindi songs in the background.
And my own curly haired head bent seriously over a chattering plastic phone.

Oyon-ism (July 2014)
After meditatively nibbling on a luscious summer Apricot with its tart, slightly fuzzy skin and mushy, over-sweet flesh...
O: This is so sweet, its salty.
Me: Huh?
O: Really. Too much sweet is salty and too much tickling hurts.  
Me: I see. Too much of anything....
O: NOT so good"

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