“I wish I grew up in the 90s,” my niece said to me as she laid across my bed, staring up at the ceiling. I laughed and agreed that it was the best time to grow up; technology had not yet taken over, so much of it was still just an exciting experiment that we got to tinker with after coming in from playing outside.
“I heard there was only one phone for everyone in the house,” she said with a mix of amazement and curiosity. Mailey is 12 and going through an “obsession with the 90s” phase, the way I went through an “obsession with the 70s” phase at her age. I would ask my parents about folk music and what they did before video games. I am now my parents to my niece, giving her fascinating information about a time before her time.
My niece, Mailey, is visiting me in Tennessee this week, along with my nephew, Jackson, and my dad. Three generations in my house and I’m in the middle, no longer the kid at family gatherings. Wow, time flies.
“Yes!” I said, “there was only one phone, and only one person could be on it at a time. Your mom and I used to fight over that because we both wanted to talk to our boyfriends, but they would get a busy signal if they tried to call and the phone was already being used.”
“What does a busy signal sound like?” She asked. It felt very surreal, to be the grown up in the situation, explaining something that was as normal as peanut butter and jelly now be a non-existent thing of the past. “A busy signal? Yea, I guess you’ve never had to hear one… it’s like a contestant beep. It’s the most annoying sound in the world when you are trying to call your friends.”
“Weird,” she said, “so you just had to wait until someone else got off the phone?”
“Yea, OR…” I said, “we would do this thing called an emergency break through. You had to call the operator, say you wanted to do an emergency break through to a busy number. The operator would interrupt their phone call and say “hello, I have an emergency breakthrough from….” whatever name you wanted to give them. Oh man we used to do those all the time.” I laughed as I thought about the ways we tried to get ahold of our friends and boyfriends in the 90s.
“And the phone was plugged into the wall right?” Mailey asked, “one day I want to have a phone like that.” I laughed at the thought– kids now wanting a landline when all we wanted growing up was a cellphone. Whether landlines are cool now because they’re vintage or it’s simply a longing for a simpler time, I get it.
I continued to explain that someone couldn’t be on the computer and the telephone at the same time. The internet used the same phone line as the telephone, so you could only be on one or the other. “And,” I said, “if someone picked up the phone while you were trying to get online, it would kick you off, you had to start all over.” I watched Mailey absorb all the information I was telling her. “It sounds so much easier,” she said.
Technology was meant to make everything easier for us, and here was this 12 year old, laying at the end of my bed, aware of just how difficult and complex technology had made everything. Don’t get me wrong, technology has also done a lot of good for us, I’m not against it, I’m just aware of how destructive it can be if it takes over. “Yea, in a lot of ways, it was easier, we didn’t know what was going on with everyone else all the time. We couldn’t really compare ourselves to the girl in Holland making her own almond milk.”
Mailey’s trance broke, “what?” she asked. “Oh” I said, “just someone I follow on Instagram.” We both laughed and she agreed as she rolled her eyes at the notion of social media, “it’s weird because on the one hand I like it, and on the other hand, I hate it. And I hate seeing what everyone else is doing.”
I can’t imagine being 12 and having to grow up with social media, comparing yourself to the 12 year old who dresses like she’s 16. Where are her parents? And how am I now old enough to even care bout that question!? Her parents? What am I, someone’s mom?
I also can’t believe I’m at the age where everything I grew up with is considered a relic. I’m in this weird middle ground of thinking things like “kids these days, ridiculous!” and yet excessively buying Lisa Frank products on eBay because I want some of my own childhood back.
Mailey and I talked for a while longer, well past the time I stay up at my current age. As I noticed it nearing 1am I almost told her it was time for bed, and then I realized, she was on vacation, and she’d otherwise just be sitting on her phone, scrolling through content until her brain wore out and she’d finally fall asleep.
When people say “age is just a number, just keep doing things with gusto!” I think it should be less about cliff jumping and doing something “risky” for your age. I think it should be more about being willing to keep connecting with people, even when the easiest thing to do is call it a night, or scroll through your phone.
Mailey and I laughed and talked until 2am. I could barely keep my eyes open. I was hurting the next morning, but when I overheard Mailey re-telling the story, that she and Aunt JJ stayed up until 2am laughing, “my stomach still hurts,” she said, it was well worth every sleepless ache in my body.
Who needs cliff jumping when it’s just as intimidating and even more rewarding to figure out how to engage a 12 year old, in person, in the year 2022!?!