On July 14, the last telegram in India, ever, will be sent. Why does that trivial if not outright ludicrous fact make me melancholy? It does for the same reason I am sad knowing that I never will, after all, use my robin’s-egg-blue princess phone again, the one I bought in a fit of nostalgia several years ago. It’s a relic.
Telegrams, though. There isn’t even a way to wallow in telegram nostalgia; that’s how archaic they are. (“Flee. Stop. All is discovered. Stop.”) The closest thing we have now to the telegram, the text, does possess at least one of the features that made telegrams dramatic, delay: the fact that one has to open something up to get the message and then read it, not hear it from a voice in real time.
In my life, I have received precisely one telegram. In 1985, at age 20, when I was living in Bologna, Italy, and going to school there, my beloved sister-in-law, Camilla, was heavily pregnant with her and my brother’s first child. At such a distance, at that time, everything about the baby was a frustrating mystery: when it would arrive, the gender, the name, the particulars, all of it. I felt utterly remote from this event that was so important to me—the first baby in our family! And there existed but one means of getting in touch with me to announce news.
That year I lived with two anorexic roommates, one of them a sociopath, in a tile-lined attic apartment in Via Turati, miles from the university area, where the foreign-study office (with its lone telephone) was located. The office was manned sporadically by a shrill-voiced and beautiful woman named Nicoletta. But students couldn’t use that phone. If I wanted to call my father in Chicago I had to walk to a different part of town and stand in line at a noisy calling-center place, where booths with closing glass doors lined the walls and you asked an Italian operator to connect you to the number (painstakingly sounding out the digits to her: “tre, uno, due, sette otto cinque …”) and then waited while they dialed. Calling was costly, so my conversations with Daddy ran short. But most important, they were one-way. He couldn’t call me.
I wrote and received a lot of letters that year (which my sociopath roommate snuck into my desk drawer and read, I later discovered). Postcards too. But I didn’t telephone more than a few times in 12 full months. Having lived a fairly timid life in the midwest up to that point, being so isolated from family and home felt like gust of arctic air filling my lungs: somewhat terrifying, but also thrilling.
So, I didn’t care so much about being out of touch with family … except for the baby’s birth.
Paul, my brother, must have told me Camilla’s due date in a letter, because I had a fairly good idea of the targeted days to expect some kind of news. Camilla had had trouble getting and staying pregnant, and I was worried about her. It felt very strange to know that flesh of my flesh, a person I had never met but already was in love with, could come into being, could enter the world and I wouldn’t be there to welcome it. Our family had disintegrated of late (my parents divorced a couple years earlier, as had my older sister), and all of us were most anxious for this happy event.
So, there I sat one morning, my nerves frayed in anticipation, when the bell rang downstairs. I dashed to the door and hurled myself down the five flights of winding marble steps to the tall wooden front doors, opened them, and took with a trembling hand: the telegram. I don’t think I even tipped whoever it was brought it to me. (Did I? I wish I could remember.) What I do remember doing is panting back up the dim staircase to find both my roommates standing at the top, looking at me breathlessly, waiting.
We all plunked down on the top couple steps, and I opened my telegram. “It’s is boy,” it read, ungrammatically. I burst into hysterical and happy sobs, and, to their great credit, both my roommates did too (even the sociopath, which makes me think now maybe she was only partly a sociopath). All was well, and my brother and his wife had a baby boy. The telegram also told me his name: Owen Glyndwr, the same name as the Savior Prince of Wales, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV (believe me, I got a lot of mileage out of that when I traveled to Wales the next month; when you tell a fiery Welsh patriot that a Welsh-American baby is just born and moreover is called Owen Glyndwr, it’s a good bet said patriot will begin to cry—joyful weeping is something of a genetic trait among us Welsh).
Now, after all these years, after Camilla’s untimely death from cancer and various other painful ruptures in the fabric of our family life, it still warms my heart to think of my brother going out in the midwestern winter to the Western Union office and composing that telegram to send to his youngest sister sitting on the other side of the world at the top of five flights of marble, biting her nails for news of the advent of the new prince of our family.
Something about the deliberateness of it, the time and care it took Paul, the fact that he had to pay someone actual money to relay the message, and the anxious waiting and excited hoping that consumed me, desert-island remote and ignorant, make that little communiqué very precious. I still have the telegram, and Paul kept a copy too. As of now, it’s just a piece of paper bearing a message from a newly distant past, a time in which fingers scrambling to open an envelope could herald anything from delight to disaster.