When I was young, my dad had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood.
I still remember the polished old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was not tall enough to reach the telephone, but I listened with fascination when my mother would talk to it.
Then, I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an extraordinary person – her name was “Information Please” and she knew everything. “Information Please” could supply anybody’s number and the correct time.
My first personal experience with this genie-in the bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be any reason in crying there was no one home to give sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway.
The telephone! I ran quickly to the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. I climbed up, unhooked the receiver in the parlor, and held it to my ear. “Information Please,” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear.
“I hurt my finger…” I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience.
“Isn’t your mother home?” came the question.
“Nobody’s home but me,” I blubbered.
“Are you bleeding?” the voice asked.
“No,” I replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.”
“Can you open your icebox?” she asked. I said I could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.
After that, I called “Information Please” for everything. I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me my pet chipmunk, that I had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts.
Another day I was on the telephone. “Information Please.”
“Information,” said the now familiar voice.
“How do you spell ‘fix’?” I asked, in my youth.
Then, there was the time Petey, our pet canary, died. I called “Information Please” and told her the sad story. She listened, then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was unconsoled. I asked her, “Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?”
She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.” Somehow I felt better.
All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. But when I was 9 years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much.
“Information Please” belonged in that old wooden box back home, and I somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall.
As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. In moments of doubt and perplexity, I often remembered the serene sense of security I had at that time. I now appreciate how patient, understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.
A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about half an hour or so between flights. I spent about 15 minutes on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, “Information Please.” Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well. “Information.”
I hadn’t planned this but I heard myself saying, “Could you please tell me how to spell ‘fix’?”
There was a long pause. Then came the soft-spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now, huh?”
I laughed. “So it’s really still you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me back then.”
“I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children, and I used to look forward to your calls.”
I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister.
“Please do,” she said. “Just ask for Sally.”
Three months later I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered, “Information.”
I asked Sally, from Paul.
“Are you a friend?” she said.
“Yes, a very old friend,” I answered.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally had been working part-time in the last few years because she was sick. She passed away five weeks ago.”
Before I could hang up she said, “Wait a minute. Did you say your name was Paul?”
“Yes,” I managed despite my sorrow.
“Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you. The note said, ‘Tell him I still think there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.’”
I thanked her and hung up. I knew exactly what Sally meant.