Phil Hugo: The phone will ring no more

February 15, 2013

It was a recorded message I’d heard before when I dialed the telephone to speak with someone on the other end of the line — family, friend or otherwise. Only this time it was different. Not the message, but the circumstance.

“We’re sorry you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you have reached the recording in error, please check the number and try your call again.”

If you’ve ever dialed a telephone, you’ve probably heard that message or a variation thereof. So you hang up, dial again and reach the party you intended to call.

In my case, there would be no reason to try the call again. My mother died in late September, less than a month before I heard that message. Actually, I had called the house a couple of times in the days after the funeral, thinking one of my siblings may have stopped by to check on things and because … Both times I let the phone ring a few times before I hung up. The house was empty, and I was left with an empty heart. A loved one dies and old habits die — hard.

The poet James Autry wrote about similar feelings in his poem “The Disconnect” after the death of his brother.

A phone ringing into your family home for 55 years is easy to take for granted. Someone will answer that phone forever, won’t they? Reality tells us otherwise. I knew the disconnect was coming because my sister Karen had discussed it with some of our siblings. Since everyone in our family is a member of the age of mobile communications club, why pay for a land line? Our father died in 2007, so the money saved can be routed for other expenses at the house. Dad’s wish was for the property to remain as a gathering place for family.

As technology changed, the telephone in Al and Rosie’s home took on different looks and functions over the years. From rotary dial in the '50s, when we dialed 0 and gave the operator the number, to the technology that allowed us to dial the number. Then a push button phone hung on the wall followed by cordless phones with caller ID, call waiting and messaging.

Sometimes Mom looked at caller ID, but otherwise she didn’t bother to learn the other options. In many ways, Mom lived a simple life, even as it applied to the technology in her home.

Now that a telephone no longer rings into the house that my great-grandfather Cornelius Hugo built in 1910, I find myself musing about the role the phone played in a household of nine.

Use of the telephone could be put into three categories: business, social and informational. Dad, along with his three brothers, was an owner of Hugo Plumbing and Heating. That meant he often fielded service calls at home after the shop closed. Customers managed to call during meal times and on Sundays and holidays.

Our father also was involved in many community organizations so those efforts involved telephone conversations. No matter the incoming call, he always answered “Hugos”. From that standpoint, there was little separation between home and workplace.

Social calls ran the gamut from children talking to friends about various activities that involved dating, hanging out, hunting and so on. There were the usual calls to and from relatives and the telephone was a much-used communications device as the children flew the coop.

Later, when we would come for family gatherings, there could be, as Mom would say, “a lot of commotion.” And if the phone rang frequently, she might then ask, with a somewhat annoyed tone in her voice, “Now who’s calling?”

Well, Mom, you don’t have to be annoyed anymore.

Informational calls ranged from making doctors’ appointments to calling school to report a child’s absence to booking airline tickets and so on. For those of us in college, a call home might have meant asking good old Mom and Dad if they would replenish the checking account. Some of you know about those kinds of calls, right?

If memory serves me, one particular call might have fallen into the miscellaneous category. Like when the local constable called the house in the post-midnight hours and said something like, “Al, can you come down to the station and get your daughters? They were picked up for minors in possession.”

That is not a call any parent wants to get, especially if he is a city councilman.

We never know when a call to a loved one may be the last time she picks up the phone. I called Mom on July 26 to chat. She would never answer a call from her eldest son again: The next day I got a call from my brother Jerry informing me they were taking Mom to the hospital.

Mom was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, then spent the remainder of her life at home in bed or a chair in the living room. The phone was answered by family members who held the device to her ear. During our last best conversation, Mom said something about my being her “good first child.”

The telephone was an oft used but perhaps seldom appreciated fixture in the Hugo household for a very long time. It’s January as I write this, and the recording is still connected to our number. I was told by a phone company representative it may or may not be reissued, depending on circumstances. In some ways, I hope it is not.

In the meantime, there will be one fewer Hugo in the West Point, Neb., telephone directory. It feels as if we are giving away a part of our life as a family. I guess we are.

The phone will ring no more.

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