I spent a bittersweet and humbling afternoon doing a job most people born after 1970 have never done. It was a task familiar to people who buy stamps and send anniversary cards, the kind of person who still writes checks and leaves voice messages. It was a quiet tech-free activity in which I communed with some of the characters who’ve drifted in and out of my life. Like weeding the garden or cleaning out the junk drawer, the task wound up being more daunting than I anticipated. For three hours, I rewrote my address book.
For those who have grown up with all their contact information stored on their smartphones, an address book (which for my first 40 years I called a "phone book"), is a handwritten paper directory with tabs for A to Z along the edge.
Mine was decades-old, a bulging mess of business cards and outdated details held together with a rubber band. It was both a practical document — how to get in touch with plumbers and doctors, neighbors and hairdressers, cousins and lawyers, colleagues and friends — and a repository of lives lived and lost. Restaurants, and people, "out of business." A chapter in the book about me.
It caught me off-guard, those hours spent retracing my past to reflect the present. Whom do I choose to not transcribe into the new book?
Some decisions are more clear-cut than others. The vet for my cat who died 10 years ago? Out. My first cousin whom I lost touch with around that time? Hmmm, he stays in. That college friend — who stopped calling whom? The information is so dated, it’s probably not accurate anyway. Out.
I rolled my eyes at the convoluted way I had double-entered certain names for quicker retrieval: under a name, "Frank," "James," as well as an occupation, "accountant," "gardener."
The number of Florida addresses highlighted the passage of time. Some friends live at an address as familiar to me as my own; others have moved four times. I felt bereft rewriting addresses with half a couple. So many stories.
"Why didn’t you just update your contacts?" asked my daughter.
For many reasons she’d find unreasonable, in no special order:
There’s the near and dear issue of "what if": my generation likes a backup; a "real" address book won’t crash or get corrupted, be rendered useless by power failure or natural disaster; it won’t be stolen and its hard drive won’t fail; it won’t have to be revived in a bowl of rice if it’s accidentally dropped in the toilet.
The lo-fi list of whereabouts in my kitchen drawer is easy to reference for Christmas cards and party invites. When I recently had to call all my credit card companies and banks, it was handy to have all the particulars in one place.
Finally, in the icky getting-affairs-in-order category, ICID (in case I die), a paper address book is straightforward access to all kinds of stuff.
Anyone I’ve asked who still uses an address book admits it’s been in their lives for so long, it’s "worn and tattered," "falling apart." They share my belief that between its covers are not just organized facts but an accounting of the center stage and bit players in a lifetime of memories.
That’s why when I finished up at Z, I put the old, battered copy — the one with my father’s last phone number and long-gone addresses of places I laughed and learned and grieved — in a bedroom drawer next to the even older address book in my mother’s handwriting.
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