Recently, Dustin and I decided to change our telephone service. We were paying more than $100 for local and long distance, but we use our cell phones more than our home phone. Dustin researched plans and arranged a service appointment for the next week.
We did not consult the boys.
There was a time when this wouldn’t have mattered. Until children reach grade school, they are basically along for the ride. The extent to which changing schools, switching laundry detergent scents or ordering a new cable package concern them is inversely proportional to the impact these things potentially have on their lives.
Around the age of 7, things begin to change. It starts with fussiness over the way their socks feel or the babyish cartoon characters on the pajamas you bought for them. By the time that child is 10, he has strong opinions about everything, even those things for which he should not. Like telephone service.
We received our new phone number while the older boys were at school. It really wasn’t a big deal. I sent out an e-mail to co-workers and friends, all the while wondering whether it mattered. Who calls us on the home phone anyway? Wasn’t the home phone just a “safety net” for emergencies?
On the way home from school, the boys were talking about calling their friends. That’s when I realized I hadn’t thought to send notices to the people THEY call.
So I said, “Oh, that reminds me. We have a new phone number because we signed on with a new phone service today.”
“You did what?” Ford and Owen said in unison.
I looked in the rearview mirror. Ford and Owen’s faces were frozen with their mouths and eyes wide open. Lindell, who actually had been home while the technician replaced our phone but is still at an age where he doesn’t care, looked back and forth at his brothers. Slowly, his happy but confused face morphed to outrage as well. He kicked the back of the driver’s seat with his snow boot.
“You did what?” Lindell yelled.
“It’s not a big deal,” I said. “We’re trying to save money, and we couldn’t change service plans without getting a new number.”
“But that number was ours,” Ford said. “It was what we shared — like our house.”
“Oh, come on now,” I said. “That’s going a little far.”
“Seriously, I will never memorize this new number,” Owen said.
“Me neither,” Lindell pouted.
You would have thought I’d given away the family pet. Indeed, it seemed like I had.
“Why don’t you just sell the house out from under us,” one yelled.
“Or bulldoze the garage while we’re at school, because that’s the way this feels.”
I had no idea the kids cared about our phone number so much. Then I thought about the phone number I had from the time I was 5 until I married. I can still remember it. I suppose I always will. Even the sound of those numbers in succession feels like home. There was a time when I called it every now and then just to see who owned it. I was secretly glad to hear that it was “not in service.”
But that was back when the family telephone meant something. My brothers and I fought for the privilege to use that phone line. We dove across the living room to answer it before anyone else. I knew the sound of my brother’s friends’ “hello,” and sometimes, when I got older, I’d chat with them for a few minutes before handing over the phone. It was the Rutherfords’ family phone. When you called our number, you never knew who would answer (although, you could safely bet money it wouldn’t be my dad).
In the age of cell phones, this is no longer the case. The boys’ aunts and uncles all have individual cell phones. What this means is that when Ford wants to call Uncle Will, he calls Uncle Will and he is unlikely to talk to Aunt Cindy first.
The same is true for me. When I want to call my friend Dawn, I dial her cell phone number. As a result, I can’t remember ever talking to her husband on the phone.
So maybe the kids had a point. Our old number was theirs, even more than it was ours. It was something they shared and that their friends had memorized. When the telephone rang, Ford and Owen raced each other to the kitchen yelling, “I’ve got it!”
Therefore, when Ford said, “That number felt like home to me,” I knew what I had to do. I called the new provider and asked to get our old number back. He told me the switch would cost $70, and then he tried to sell me faster Internet service.
I hung up and told the boys the bad news. The old number was gone forever.
Then I remembered what one of them had said: “I’ll never remember this new number.” And I wondered, might $70 be worth it if the kids will call home when they are grown?
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at