“countless rows of black lines, and crossed out names, numbers and addresses mark those spots like dark clusters of moss and vine-covered tombstones in an old church graveyard”
By Lori D. Johnson
If you’ve ever frequented a social media platform, you’ve no doubt seen some version of the following: Got a new phone. Lost all of my contact info. Text me if you want to stay connected. Occasionally the message is written in all CAPS, like a high-pitched scream meant, I suppose, to flag the waning attention of the more comatose readers.
While I appreciate the urgency of such situations, the question that comes to mind when I scroll upon such appeals is What the heck happened to your back up? You know, your actual phone book? To many I’m sure, my inquiry both dates me and comes off as unnecessarily condescending. But to be clear, the desire to stay connected and not lose contact is something I share with those anxious souls I encounter on social media bemoaning the loss of their digital directories.
The biggest difference between me and the “lost all of my contact info” crowd is that I own not one, but two paperbound phone books, neither of which thankfully requires a Wi-Fi connection or cell phone provider in order to operate. That’s not a boast; it’s a simple statement of the facts. I fully recognize all it would take is a house fire, flood or some other disaster, natural or otherwise, and I too would likely be somewhere on social media frantically signaling an SOS.
Once again, let’s be clear though. When I say “phone book” I’m not talking about that oversized, door-stopped dropped directory of business listings once commonly referred to as the Yellow Pages, or even it’s less cumbersome cousin of non-commercial listings dubbed The White Pages. (Even though, aging packrat that I am, I still own more than a few of each. Sigh.).
What I am referencing in this particular instance is the “pocket size” address book that typically only necessitates the procuring of a pencil or pen in order to scribble down the names and numbers of folks with whom you want to stay in touch.
Comically old school as they may be, my red flowered and green-leaf adorned phone books have been steady and reliable companions as I’ve moved in and out of more apartments than I care to remember and made a home in three different houses in three different states. While the years of continuous use have begun to show – the colorful covers are frayed and peeling and the pages in both have come loose from their spines – for the most part, they’ve hung with me and held together through marriage, motherhood and even the moody, middle-aged empty-nester I’ve recently become.
The information in those two little books means everything to me, which may make what I’m about to confess all the more surprising: recently, I’ve begun contemplating their replacement. For one, I don’t need two and should have consolidated them a long time ago. Second, as previously mentioned, they are both literally coming apart at the seams. If I’m not careful the next time I pick one up, pages are bound to spill out and flutter in every direction. So, what’s stopping me from purchasing a new one, besides not knowing if these items of antiquity are still currently being sold anywhere?
The simple truth: replacing my phone books will force me to acknowledge that my number of contacts has grown noticeably smaller over the years. A quick thumb through either book and any section (A thru Z) and the irrefutable glares back at me in the form of names, phone numbers and addresses that have been marked through and/or crossed out altogether. It’s not my contact information that I’m losing, but rather my actual contacts, and at a rate that apparently exceeds my ability to replace them.
And what’s driving this mass exodus? The four big D’s of life, mainly. Distance, Divorce, Dementia and Death.
Remember those moves I mentioned? Well, whoever pegged the saying, “distance makes the heart grow fonder” must have never experienced a major relocation, much less several like I have. It’s been my experience that more often than not distance leads to either a quick end to a relationship or a gradual petering out of one. Not that all endings are necessarily bad. Sometimes they just are and no feelings, beyond the superficial, suffer in the process. A prime example might be those relationships formed via necessity – you know, like doctors, handymen, hairstylists and the like. Those names and numbers are relatively easy to cross out. But the same isn’t necessarily true for some others whose distance represents a severing of ties based more on emotional separation than physical proximity.
Casualties of “emotional distance” include folks who ultimately prove to be more acquaintances than friends after your paths stop crossing on a regular basis. Then there are those from whom you’ve simply grown apart. You come to realize and accept that you have no shared interests, no deep connections or genuine bond. An image or memory of them may enter your mind every now and then, but it’s never compelling enough to make you want to pick up the phone and call. And it’s all too obvious, they feel the same way about you.
Divorce has systematically removed a number of friends, relatives and in-laws alike from my life. Hemmed in a corner and forced to choose, I end up holding onto one half of the formerly lovely, dovey couple and dumping the other. Truthfully, sometimes the one I’d rather keep is neither the one related to me nor the one I originally befriended – but that’s both a prickly issue and an essay best left for exploration on another day.
Of all of the thieves slowly and methodically robbing me of some of my most beloved contacts, dementia has been by far the cruelest. Even though the contact may still be mobile, verbal and even available by phone, engaging in a coherent conversation is no longer a viable option.
Currently, the list of folks in my life who’ve fallen victim to this most unkind and undiscriminating big D includes a couple of grandparents; an aunt; a first cousin; a couple of co-workers; a church member and a host of older friends. Most of the aforementioned were people I spoke to and socialized with on a fairly regular basis. Many of them I considered lifelines, if not anchors who kept me from sinking and straying too far off course during both the raging storms and the quieter ebbs and flows of various existential crises.
My phone calls to my grandmother (aka “my MaDear”), always full of laughter and sage advice, were a genuine source of comfort to me when I was a college freshman and remain as some of my most precious memories. I knew our chats would soon be no more, the day I noticed her asking the same question over and over again. Even though she passed in 1999, my MaDear’s name and that of the nursing home where she lived out her final days still own an unmarred spot in one of my phone books. I have yet and may never summon the strength required to mark through them.
A love of books, a quirky sense of humor and a keen sense of outrage over societal injustices, whether big or small, top the list of things my friend Nina and I held in common. We met while working at the main branch of the public library in Memphis, TN. Neither of us allowed the fact that Nina was old enough to be my mother stop us from enjoying each others’ company. Even after we stopped working together and living in the same state, we stayed in touch by phone for years. I dearly miss being able to place and receive those calls. Nina’s call to wish me a happy birthday was particularly special. She always remembered. Always. Until the arrival of the day that she no longer did or could.
The Jenkins, Pauline and Archie, were an older couple who lovingly stepped into the role of surrogate parents/grandparents to my husband, young son and I upon our relocation to Ohio. They were a fun, energetic couple who like us owned southern roots. I won’t soon forget the look of bliss and delight on Archie’s face as he reveled in the taste of my home-made lemon meringue pie or the comical, if not laudable, image of sixty-some year-old Pauline outmaneuvering a good many of the neighborhood youngsters jockeying for the candy and souvenirs being tossed at a Memorial Day parade. The Jenkins schooled us on surviving Cleveland winters, invited us over for holiday dinners and got us involved in their church’s mission to feed the homeless and the hungry. But the last time we met up with them a few years ago, the telltale signs were all too evident. The inability to focus. The forgetfulness. The verbal repetition. Dementia wasted little time in claiming first sweet Pauline and mild-mannered Archie, shortly thereafter.
Then there’s the final big D. Death. Like a biblical plague that swoops down and wipes out one household after another, death has consumed entire portions of my phonebooks. Both sets of my grandparents. Both of my husband’s parents. Two of my husband’s brothers and one of the brothers’ wives. Three great-aunts on my mother’s side. A couple of cousins. My father’s brother and his wife. My father’s sister and her husband. Miz Fannie and Mr. Richard, a couple I’ve known since I was a child and who once lived a few doors down from my grandparents. Once upon a time, the contact information for all of the aforementioned (and a host of others) appeared on the pages of one, if not both of my phone books. Today, countless rows of black lines, and crossed out names, numbers and addresses mark those spots like dark clusters of moss and vine-covered tombstones in an old church graveyard.
But as unrelenting and final as death is, at least the loss is typically a kinder and gentler one. When I think about the friends and loved ones I’ve lost to death, I’m not left to wonder how much of the individual still lurks somewhere beneath the mask of confusion, like I do with dementia, nor am I apt to dwell on the devastation left in the wake of their altered state of being. Like a period, signaling the end of a sentence, a chapter or a story, death invites a moment for pause and reflection and in that sacred space only the good memories of your friend or loved one come forward to grace centerstage.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that as awful as losing all of one’s contact information surely is, losing most of one’s flesh and blood contacts is a far worse experience. Unlike those solely dependent upon their digital directories, at least I still have my phone books, and there within evidence of those whose lives were once connected to my own. Admittedly, these days, my phone books are less like sources for contact information and more like repositories for an ever-growing collection of cherished memories, memories that help me stay connected well after all of the talking, tweeting, texting and posting has given way to the deafening hum of silence. I pray those memories sustain me until the arrival of that fateful day when one of the big Ds – dementia or death – comes bearing the indelible marker that will sweep through my own name with all of the flourish and finality of a flatline.
(Some names were changed in the interest of privacy)
Copyright (c) 2021 by Lori D. Johnson. All rights reserved. Lori D. Johnson earned an M.A. degree in Urban Anthropology from the University of Memphis. She is the author of two novels, A Natural Woman and After The Dance. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Chapter16.org, The Root, Mississippi Folklife, Upscale Magazine, Memphis Magazine, The Commercial Appeal, The Tri-State Defender, and Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, but still considers Memphis home.