These days when I think about my brain — which is a bit like asking my ears what they sound like — I think of it as a filing cabinet with no rear wall. Every time I squeeze in a few more manila folders, some of the dormant ones plunk out the back. Much as I’d like to edge out the sad or the mean or the impractical, it seems I can’t choose what goes. I worry I’ve lost things I’d hoped to keep, although I can’t tell you what they were.
It got me wondering what, if anything, is saving us some mental space. Think of the technology we crutch along with that’s supposed to simplify our lives: if I didn’t have a smartphone my brain might still be able to summon critical information at a moment’s notice. The name of the archduke whose murder set off World War I and later had an indie band named after him. The actress who played Coach’s wife in Friday Night Lights. But by the same token, if I didn’t have an iPhone, I wouldn’t be doing unwanted cerebral back-up saves of sappy UpWorthy videos or vacation snapshots of Facebook friends whose children I’ve never met.
The only thing we don’t have to remember any more are phone numbers. We jab at people’s names, we don’t need to dial the digits. I no longer know the phone numbers of my closest friends and family members, and that’s mental space saved.
What’s weird is, I’ve tried and failed to clear out the phone numbers I knew by heart in childhood. Ask me and I can reel off the phone numbers of my best friend in high school and the first boy I ever loved.
I also know the home phone number I had from the time I learned to count until I left for college and the two emergency phone numbers my mum made me memorize. These were the numbers of kids we grew up with whose mothers were friends with ours. Back when my brother and I were small we knew: both of these proxy mothers had the authority to scold us for misbehaving or fetch us indoors if the game of kick-the-can ran too late. Our number, in turn, would have been an emergency number for these other kids. All of us, we could call each others mothers if we ran into any kind of trouble.
And did we? I can’t remember, and we can’t ask. Our three mothers, they’re all gone, much earlier than any of us, as children, could have fathomed. I don’t believe in heaven — neither did the three of them — but I like to imagine them hanging out wherever they are. Hashing over books and work and solo parenting, swatting away the cigarette smoke in case one of us kids burst in unexpected. Laughing at something so hard they have to clutch at each other to stay standing.
Today I decided to call these old numbers and see who answered. I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while, just couldn’t quite plan out what I’d say. I figured I’d just tell whoever answered the truth, that this was an important phone number in my childhood and I was curious to know who lived there now.
As with so much of what I pile into my heaving brain, I was overthinking this.
My mum’s friend Linda, who I associate with brown couch cushions perfect for forts, raspberry pavlova, and staying up all night for Princess Diana’s wedding — her number is out of service.
Jeannie makes me think of Van cherries, trampolines, and castle cakes with marshmallow icing. Her number is a fax line now. I googled it and it’s listed to someone named Kedy Marzban who amazingly is the only person with this name in the whole of the US or Canada. That’s as far as I got, although I’m toying with hooking up my old fax machine and sending her a note. Dear Kedy – who are you? This is an emergency number from my childhood. Can you tell me a bit about yourself? Any chance Jeannie is there?
I saved my own childhood number for last. It picked up on the second ring but turned out to be the voicemail for a company called Option Solutions Education Consultants, which is a terrible name — the kind of name that slips out of your head in the time it takes to set down your phone and open your laptop to look up the website.
Option Solutions Education Consultants is a business that helps today’s youth with life choices, career counseling, and applying for post-secondary education.
“Today’s young people face an overwhelming number of adult decisions, choices that will ultimately affect their educational and professional futures. In order to make informed decisions, adolescents require expert direction and support.”
Sounds a lot more pricey and complicated than my childhood emergency numbers, where the grown-ups on the other end of the line were clearly offering something similar. And we all turned out just fine.