Once upon a time, people’s phone calls were constrained to the privacy of their own home and the length of their phone’s cord. Now, given the rise of cellphones, phone calls can happen anywhere and often. On any given sunny morning or afternoon, I can find myself walking back from class, passing several students seated on benches, sprawled on the grass or walking nowhere in particular, phone in hand or earbuds in ears, having a conversation with some person unknown and invisible to me.
Isabel Mascuch is a first year from New York. She mostly calls her mom and her twin sister. This fall, she was in a long distance relationship.
“I think it was nice because you get closer talking to someone on the phone, in a way, because it’s your only time that you can be close,” Isabel said. “I’m very far from home — I live in New York — so I don’t really go home that often. That’s the time I have when I can focus in. I think it has really helped with my attention span because I have to really listen to people.”
In addition to helping increase her attention span, the distance between New York and Los Angeles has strengthened Isabel’s relationship with her twin sister.
“Our relationship is really good, but also has some bad sides to it. So I think that it’s been helpful, the distance,” Isabel said. “We’re identical, so it’s also very new to not have someone that looks the same as me, in the same area, when everyone associates us together. That [change is] honestly so nice. And I feel like much more free … I still think that we have grown to appreciate each other so much more with the distance, and also have started respecting each other more. I’m not going to find anyone who knows me better than she does.”
Amanda is a first year who FaceTimes her mom in Chicago almost every day, even though it can be difficult with a two–hour time difference.
“We’re really close,” Amanda said. “It’s really just my mom and me. My parents are divorced and I’m not too close with my father. So my mom is really my everything.”
“Just a couple weeks ago, I spilled an entire water bottle on my MacBook,” Amanda said. “It was the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me. The first person I called was my mom, crying. She wouldn’t even be able to do anything! But she just calmed me down … and she was able to answer the phone right away, even though I know she was at work. She probably knew that something was wrong because I never call her at such a random time.”
Amanda was also in a long distance romantic relationship this fall, which proved to be difficult.
“It was especially difficult when we would get into arguments because someone’s natural instinct is to not want to talk to someone when they’re mad at them,” Amanda said. “I would try to FaceTime, but one of us would be too upset. It was just really difficult not to be able to just stop by their house and be like, ‘Listen, we need to sit down and talk.'”
“Since [the relationship ended], I feel like I’ve had so much extra time and I’ve been able to really get closer with more of my friends,” Amanda said. “Being able to have that extra time to like, ‘find myself’ or whatever, that everyone is supposed to be doing in college, has been nice.”
Le’Andreah is a first year from Chicago. She calls home about once a week, on Tuesday or Thursday.
“I call home mostly for them. Because I know my mom misses me so much,” Le’Andreah said. “Normally I call so that they know that I’m alright. As the youngest, me being so far away from home is nerve-wracking for them.”
“We have this really strong bond, so no matter how far in the world we go, it will still be the same,” Le’Andreah said.
After talking to Isabel, Amanda and Le’Andreah, I called my dad. His name is Jim Lisius. He and my mom live in the same house in rural Maine where we’ve lived my whole life. He’s three hours ahead, proudly doesn’t own a cell phone and we don’t plan when we talk, but we usually connect about once a week.
My dad was born in 1955 and he told me he doesn’t remember any students regularly calling home when he was in college. He never called home more than occasionally. When I asked him why, he told me it was because he was focused on his purpose at college. The idea of planning time to talk to someone remotely seemed constraining to him.
He explained to me he never talked to his parents much when he lived at home anyway.
“If you thought about me, in high school I basically saw my parents at night. I got up in the morning, and I was gone before anyone else got up and didn’t get home until dinner-time-ish,” he said.
I told him I remember my high school experience to be similar, off to school and then most nights not home until 8 p.m. I told him I feel like we talk more now, that we’re closer, even. I attribute part of the reason why we’ve gotten closer to be the fact that I’m a part of the collegiate world now, where he has spent so much of his time either as a student or a professor.
He doesn’t believe we talk more now since this is the first time we’ve talked this week. He doesn’t believe our closeness has anything to do with our newly-shared experience of university, but he does notice our conversations have become more complex. We understand each other better now.
“You’re getting more interesting as time goes on,” he says, and then he described the ways he thinks I’ve grown up in the last year, the way parents do.
I question him about his pragmatic attitude towards planning and making room for people who are away. I ask him why, then, does he send me a letter every week? Real letters in stamped envelopes about the way the ice is melting on the river in our backyard, or what trouble my dog has recently gotten into or something he’s reading. Letters that I cherish because of the care they require, their indulgent antiquity and their consistency in always being there, just like him. If a regularly scheduled phone call was always unappealing to him, then why choose this ultimate form of planned communication now?
He doesn’t have a very complete answer as to why his love for me manifests in this way, other than a memory of how beautiful the 80-foot-long wall of over a thousand mailboxes in the University of Michigan’s South Quad was to him when he saw it for the first time as a second grader visiting his cousin. Years later, he earned his own mailbox on that wall for the three years he lived at South Quad as a student. He told me he wanted to give me that particular kind joy that mail brings.
Even though I know he sends me one every week, seeing an envelope in my mailbox never ceases to surprise and delight me. I hope my dad gets a little bit of that same joy when he picks up the phone and discovers it’s me on the other end.