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 reasons in crying because there was no one home to give my sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone!
Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver 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. “Information.”
“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?”
“No,” I replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer, and it hurts.”
“Can you open the 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. Just the day before, when I caught my pet chipmunk, she told me my new-found friend would eat fruits and nuts.
Then, there came the time when our pet canary Petey died. I called “Information Please” and told her the sad story. She listened and then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was un-consoled. 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 there are other worlds in which to sing.”
Somehow, I felt better.
Another day I was on the telephone. “Information Please.”
“Information,” said the now familiar voice.
“How do you spell ‘fix’?”
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. Somehow I never thought of trying the shiny new phone 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 say, “Information.”
I had not 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 looked forward to your calls.”
I told her how often I thought of her over the years and 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 was 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 in which to sing. He’ll know what I mean.”
I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant.