Many years back, I wanted to contact one of my cousins. I didn’t have her phone number and, for the life of me, I couldn’t recall her married name. I wasn’t worried, because I knew the information was in my late mother’s address book. But I couldn’t find my mother’s telephone book — the familial Encyclopedia Britannica — and that was the end of that.
A few years later, I wanted to call another cousin living in Australia before traveling there. I didn’t know her number or address but knew I’d find it in my mother’s book. Same problem. I still hadn’t located that invaluable family resource, that compendium of all things Galatz. And so, off to Australia I went without seeing my cousin.
It’s been that way for more than a decade. I’d want to look up some random bit of information that could be found in my mother’s phone book, only to be thwarted by its absence. How had I misplaced such an important source of family history? How had I been so careless?
My children didn’t get what the big deal was. They couldn’t. Their information is all instantly accessible or disposable. It’s “in the cloud,” wherever that is. But we of another generation remember phone books. Also, daily planners. For decades we dutifully carried them around in our pockets and pocketbooks.
We of that other, older generation didn’t delete information. We held on to it. At most, we might have erased a name or slashed a giant X through it after a lover’s quarrel. But for the most part, names and addresses remained in our phone books — a permanent record of someone, someplace, some time in our lives.
Periodically I scanned my bookshelves and rooted through closets and storage bins, searching for that precious little volume, only to come up empty-handed.
Then, one day, while sorting through a trunk of baby clothes and toys of my now-adult children, I found it. Why I placed it there I could not recall, but I cannot describe the joy and relief I felt at the sight of it.
My mother’s telephone book has an apt title — “Very Important Data.” It is, in fact, a genealogist’s/sociologist’s/economist’s/sentimentalist’s Rosetta Stone, providing a detailed look at the day-to-day life of a (Jewish) American housewife in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
The book tells of retailers and businesses long gone — Abraham & Straus, the Fuller Brush salesman and the Oldsmobile dealership.
It also tells of my family’s life in the cities I grew up across the U.S. — Las Vegas, New York City, Tucson, Stony Brook and Westbury.
For a genealogist, it is a gold mine, listing the names, so many names, of relatives long gone — through death or divorce. It is shocking to realize how few people listed in that book are alive today. It fills me with nostalgia and awe for all those who passed in my lifetime.
My mother’s phone book models something else that is long gone, a kind of relentless female domesticity that few women today are interested in or have the time for.
The sleek 5-by-5-inch book, a binder actually, provides multiple pages to track holiday cards (sent and received — by year!), insurance records, family automobiles, membership in clubs (auto, fraternal, book and record), subscriptions to magazines, and the years and all the U.S. government bonds you purchased.
It includes a handy “service index” to list the people who help keep your house and life running. Some of my favorites — chiropodist, fuel supplier and fruit store. Under “domestic help,” there’s room for your butler and employment agency. (My mother listed neither.)
Meticulous housewives of the era could detail clothing sizes for her and him, preferred cosmetics and their guy’s go-to shaving lotion.
Jumping to the present, my mother’s book continues to have value. I have turned time and time again to this Rosetta Stone of the Galatz clan repeatedly to check a birthday or an anniversary.
After all these decades, the book shows its age. The pages and ink are faded. The cover and binding are held together with green tape.
Yet, for all the wear and tear, it’s thanks to this yellowed, still-smelling-of-cigarettes-and-perfume artifact that my mother comes so vividly to life for me today. I picture her at her desk, talking on the phone to one of the relatives, me playing on the floor beside her. It is a lovely memory.
My children of this alt-delete-obliterate paperless era won’t have this kind of resource to call upon to recall our family or our times together.
I reflect on all this as I look at the yahrzeit candle marking the 19 years since my mother’s passing. I reflect on all this as I place my mother’s phone book beside the candle on my counter and simultaneously smile and tear up in happy/sad remembrance.