When I was quite young, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember well the polished old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother used to talk to it. Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person – her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know. “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 because there was no one home to give sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway.
The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the foot stool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I 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 he day before, would eat fruit and nuts.
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.
Another day I was on the telephone. “Information Please.”
“Information,” said the now familiar voice.
“How do you spell fix?” I asked.
All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. 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. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated now 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 planes. I spent 15 minutes or so 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.”
I laughed. “So it’s really still you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time.”
“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 for Sally.
“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 the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.”
Before I could hang up she said, “Wait a minute. Did you say your name was Paul?”
“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 say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.”
I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant.