Bring Back the Landline


A woman speaking on a landline.About a month ago, I was running errands when my phone rang, and the contact for our landline appeared on my screen.

Immediately, I worried. Our landline was a relic; we kept it because it allowed us to purchase a cheaper internet package. No one ever used it.

Hands shaking, I picked up the call.

“Mommy?” a little voice said. “Mommy! It’s me! I called you!”

I gasped, astounded to hear my five-year-old bursting with excitement.

“Hi Sweetie!” I said. “It is so good to hear from you! I can’t believe you called Mommy!”

She giggled. “I learned how at school!”

I laughed as she explained how, in pre-K, she’d memorized my phone number and learned how to operate an old-fashioned phone, something my older children still couldn’t do. Her pride in being able to reach me made my heart swell. It also made me wonder why I’d never taught my older, iPhone-savvy kids the same skill.

When it comes to technology, I’ve never been one for nostalgia. I do not miss winding cassette tapes or fighting with scratched CDs. I have never pined over lost commercial breaks.

Yet, that day, something struck me about the loss of the landline. Its loss represented a change in technology and a forgotten way of life.

Growing up, the phone ringing was a big deal. It could be a friend calling to schedule a play date or one of our mom’s friends wanting to catch up. Often, it was a grandparent who would ask us about our days when we answered before we handed the phone off to Mom or Dad.

Answering the phone, taking messages, and making small talk with adults were all normal parts of life that taught us about manners and etiquette starting at a young age. Like how to say, “I’m sorry, but she can’t come to the phone right now,” instead of “She’s in the bathroom,” when taking messages for our mother.

Without virtual contact lists, we learned to memorize numbers, our minds an ever-growing contact list of relatives and friends. Since the landline belonged to all of us, creating the perfect answering machine message became a favorite family pastime. Many of our messages were memorable, like my off-key rendition of George Costanza’s answering machine song from Seinfeld that greeted callers for much of the late ’90s.

“Believe it or not, the Nastris aren’t home,” my voice sang from the small tape.

Some of our callers would sing back to us; others would crack jokes. Almost everyone would greet the whole family before addressing the recipient of their call.

To call one of us was to know all of us.

I saw this firsthand when my paternal grandmother would call with a question for my dad but then get sidetracked talking to my mom, sometimes for an hour.

“Who have you been talking to for so long?” Dad would say.

“Your mother! She wants to ask you something! I’ll give it to you when I’m done,” Mom would answer, then continue talking, the impromptu conversation between in-laws bonding them in a way that felt both natural and easy.

These days, spontaneous phone conversations are rare. Simple questions are asked by text. Phone calls go directly to a single recipient’s cell phone. There are fewer opportunities for callers to connect with families. Or for parents to teach kids how to treat others, lessons that came regularly when I was a kid.

Like when I had to call my saxophone teacher and tell him I couldn’t attend my lesson because I hadn’t practiced enough. Embarrassment bubbling, I had begged my parents to make the call themselves.

“It’s your lesson; you need to do it,” my parents told me, eager to teach me that part of growing up was taking accountability for my actions. So, after wiping my tears, I called. I learned I could survive a difficult conversation.

In today’s world, I probably would have hidden behind a text.

Just like I would have in middle school when a boy I wasn’t interested in kept calling the house.

“Tell him I’m not home,” I’d tell my mother, too scared to vocalize that I didn’t like him.

After doing so, my mother told me she wouldn’t cover for me again.

“You may not want to talk to him, but he is a nice boy and doesn’t deserve to be ignored. If you aren’t interested, you need to tell him yourself,” she’d told me.

Then we talked about what I could say. The next night, I told him how I felt.

As I grew older, I found myself capable of handling all sorts of situations on my own. The guidance I’d received regularly as a kid had allowed me to develop the skills necessary to handle difficult interactions.

I think about this as my oldest approaches middle school. Will I even know when she has trouble with a boy? Will I have the chance to coach her when she doesn’t know what to say? With most communication bypassing parents way before the high school years, it is now up to children to ask for help—help they might not realize they need.

Of course, in many ways, the world of the iPhone has enhanced our conversations. Today’s phones allow us to send articles and jokes, blast pictures to relatives, and FaceTime grandparents who live far away. They even allow my five-year-old to call me when I’m out.

Yet even with Facetime, I fear intimacy is lost. With the phone on speaker, none of the kids feels tied to the conversation, and no one gives the call the attention it deserves.

While texting allows us to connect easily with friends, it also makes it easier to cancel plans, silence messages, and exclude others from text chains. Likewise, it silences much of our kids’ communication, erasing teachable moments that could help build important skills.

This is why I’ve been trying to incorporate some of those old lessons into our modern lives. I also told my daughter I wouldn’t text her coach when she wanted to miss practice for a sleepover and instead insisted she tell her at practice herself.

And why, recently, when she asked for an iPad to communicate with friends, my eyes twinkled with laughter.

“No, but I have an idea,” I said. “Why don’t you give them our landline?”

Feigning horror, she’d rolled her eyes, then explained why she needed text and video.

To that, I shrugged and wrote out our number.

So far, our lonely landline has yet to ring. But if it does, we’ll be here, ready to answer.


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