The phone of my childhood was a chunky white box with a rotary dial. It hung on the wall of the kitchen, next to the door that led to the garage. A coiled cord connected the receiver, a cord long enough to reach out the door and onto the cement step at the garage threshold. It was the only telephone in the house, so every incoming and outgoing call happened in the kitchen. Most of the time if the phone rang it was an indoor call—organize the school carpool, sign up for the church potluck, water the neighbor’s plants. But sometimes, whoever took the call would stretch the cord out into the garage and pull the door fast.
This was the best privacy to be had in my house—wedged between the dog bed and the clothes dryer, a bare 60-watt bulb providing the only light. Sometimes it was my mother, catching up with a cousin in Illinois or commiserating with another mom in my second-grade class. But in those years, before I started taking long calls in the garage, it was mostly my father. Marhaba, he’d say. Always the same greetings. Keefek. Al humdu Allah. Then he’d open the garage door and disappear, the only traces of him the cord pinched in the doorframe and the barks and grumbles of his muffled voice.
Arabic was the language of his other life, the one we, monolingual, couldn’t join. Often, these long telephone conversations would be followed by his departure, with no hint as to where he was going or when he’d return. My mother said nothing, as if this were completely unremarkable. The kitchen telephone was the only place these two worlds touched, the tangible location of a connection between our home and his other world.
My father didn’t spend time in the kitchen. Most nights he emerged when dinner was already on the table, and retreated to his study as soon as he’d finished eating. So the telephone is what drew him there in those cozy afternoons while my mother was cooking with one eye and watching us with the other. The sound of his voice through the door was a muffled burble, blending in with the sounds of my mother’s spatula clattering in the sink and my sister scrabbling for the red marker and my brother kicking the table leg. While it felt sometimes that there were mysterious forces pulling him away from us, the happy cacophony of the kitchen was the reassuring music of family.
I think of this because a Verizon representative came by my house yesterday to let me know that 5G towers were up in my neighborhood. This means that I can get completely wireless internet, cable, and phone service—the ultimate cut of the cord. I should be glad; our cable internet is terrible. But it seems a little disquieting, this perfect untethering from any tangible form of connection.
The coiled cord of the old kitchen phone was a copper umbilicus that pulled us back into the family even as each of us children in turn stretched the cord around the doorframe and into the garage to nibble the first buds of privacy and independence. My daughter L. has grown up in the age of wireless, her adolescent secrets whispered into a glowing screen in the privacy of her room. L. would laugh at the way I used to hold the receiver to my ear and stretch on tippy-toes to grasp a pencil just out of reach. These days, L.’s iPhone walks down the stairs and out the door without a drop in service. Her calls transition seamlessly from the home Wi-Fi to the public 5G, pinging towers across the Whitestone bridge and across Connecticut, all the way to her new dorm room three states away. Some days I wish for a cord to pull her back.
L. was home recently, a swirl of noise and color blowing through what has become in her absence our staid, book-reading, dog-walking, child-free home. Her friends have scattered and her now boring parents are little consolation. She comes to the kitchen as the sun is setting, pulls onions and mushrooms out of the refrigerator, an iron pan out of the cabinet—a silently generous offer to cook dinner. I’m sitting at the table, working my way through an application for car insurance, grateful for her help, but more for her company. We exchange a few words, then she props her phone on the counter and taps one of her new cordless earbuds. G. in Ohio comes on the line, and for the next twenty minutes, through the sizzle of onions and the scrape of the spatula, I hear one side, the m-hms and can you believe its that add another layer of paint to the mural of their friendship.
Like all in her generation, L. is fully mobile. She could take this call anywhere. But she brought it here, to the kitchen, the center of our home, the heart of our family. Even though she is in the middle of telling G. a convoluted story about a mutual friend whose tattoo is not working out, I feel for a moment that my daughter is talking to me. She is saying, I am at home here, and I want you to share in my life. She is already making her own way in the world, stepping over the threshold into adulthood. But here in the kitchen, she is telling me that no matter how far the cord stretches, it will never break.
Samira Kawash is professor emerita at Rutgers University.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Image by Marco Verch Professional Photographer's photostream licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.