Objects of Affection

Well, my fingers didn’t fit in the holes quite like they used to when I was young, but everything else was perfect. The white numbers and letters circling the clear plastic dial like groups of children on a merry-go-round. The chrome hook cradling the heavy handset with its curly cord hanging slightly kinked in a toothy grin. The shiny black body with space to tape on a piece of yellowing paper scrawled with the names of family near and far. The price tag may have read “$28”, but to me, this vintage rotary phone was priceless.

Rotary dial, detail. Sonia Nicholson photo.

In truth, the phone as an object was much less important than what it represented. It was a portal to another time and place, to a specific part of my past that now, as people have passed on, has become that much more precious. For as long as I can remember, a phone exactly like this — right down to the white paint splatter across the top — hung in my grandparents’ house. It watched quietly as my aunts, uncles and cousins gathered for Easter dinners. It endured my grandmother’s long and loud calls as she exchanged gossip and news from the brown vinyl kitchen chair beneath it. And it patiently waited while all the kids were crammed in the room watching WWF Wrestling and drinking instant coffee weakened by a lot of milk. The phone was always there.

So when I just happened to see one listed for sale on the Facebook page of a local antique shop recently, it was like receiving a letter that had been lost for 30 years and had finally been delivered. I begged the store to hold it for me and rushed across town later that afternoon. The proprietress listened kindly as I tried to explain my excitement without coming across as crazed. But how could I possibly convey all the meaning contained in that combination of plastic and metal? How could I make a stranger understand the rapid slideshow of memories that played in my mind every time I saw, or simply thought about, what to most was only an example of outdated equipment?

But how could I possibly convey all the meaning contained in that combination of plastic and metal? How could I make a stranger understand the rapid slideshow of memories that played in my mind every time I saw, or simply thought about, what to most was only an example of outdated equipment?

Those of us that work in history know that what makes an artifact more attractive is the story behind it. Just as a photograph loses its value if we don’t know at least one of the five “w’s” (who, what, where, when, and why), an heirloom without an anecdote becomes an orphan of sorts. It can provide information as an item in and of itself, but the relationships are lost. What once played a steady role in the life of a family is now seen only for its function and form. A phone is a phone and nothing more.

But objects have power. The mere sight of a ragged teddy bear, an elegant felt hat, a rusty spoon, or, in my case, a paint-speckled phone, can transport us. Suddenly, we remember. The good, the bad, and everything in between. As we run fingers over familiar surfaces, that contact triggers tidal waves of nostalgia. Keats wrote that “Touch has a memory”; the tactile evokes the long-forgotten moments that have receded farther and farther with each passing year and brings them back to life in vivid detail. In my work in archives and museums, I have seen it time and again with visitors and donors.

To listen to them recount their days is intimate, at times uncomfortable, and always a privilege not to be taken lightly. When their gaze shifts to another era after they have, perhaps hesitantly, reverently, laid the pieces of their history on the table, you fade into the background. You are only a facilitator. The objects are the transmitters connecting past and present, memory and moment, young and old as they are picked up one by one and turned over, the adjustment somehow providing better reception. And if you listen closely, you will hear the message loud and clear. The stories matter.

As I get older, I find myself increasingly tuning into my own. At home, my phone is now mounted on the wall and it looks like it has always been there. For my children, it is a novelty. They are amazed at how long it takes to make a call using rotary dial. (Impressively enough, the phone actually works.) For me, it is a tangible connection to something greater: those that have come and gone, still loved and still remembered. Family that lives on through the telephone line, answering the call every time I wrap the cord around my finger.

Published by Sonia Nicholson

Sonia Nicholson is an archivist, executive assistant, and writer. She was born and raised in Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada and studied French and Spanish at the University of Victoria. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband, two children, and two rescue dogs. Follow her on Twitter @nicholsonsonia_

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