Keeping in touch

I’m almost forty-two years old. I grew up in the little cottage that has belonged to my family for about 140 years. My father and his father were born in that house, my mother still lives there. My roots are planted deeply in the midlands of Ireland. But for the past twenty years I have been a nomad. At the age of twenty-two I moved to Japan, and from there back to Ireland, then to Nunavut in Canada, then to Scotland, back to Nunavut, back to Scotland, then to England, then onto Carina, and now here I am in southern Spain. I’ve lived all over the UK, and I’ve travelled extensively across Canada, and along the east coasts of the United States and Australia, and throughout Europe. I’m a wanderer at heart. Over those twenty years, advances in communication technology have made the world a smaller place and both my home in Ireland and my friends and family scattered all over the world no longer seem as far away as they once did.

When I was growing up we didn’t have a phone. Neither did any of my relatives, or any of my neighbours, with the exception of Jimmy and Mrs. Phelan who lived about 300 yards down the road. If an urgent phone call needed to be made we would run down to Phelan’s and Jimmy or Mrs. Phelan (Mr. Phelan was always ‘Jimmy’; Mary Phelan was always ‘Mrs.’) would show us into their sitting room and close the door to afford some privacy. Afterwards, we would hand over 10p. We didn’t make phone calls often. I remember one night, when my sister was small, she got her finger caught in the bathroom door and the doctor had to be called. Daddy wasn’t home, so Mammy sent me across the road to McGlynn’s and Mel ran down to Phelan’s to phone the doctor.

When I was 16 years old I got an opportunity to go to France for the summer to work as an au pair and improve my French. The family I was to stay with wrote me a letter and asked me to phone to finalise the arrangements. Mammy drove me into Edenderry and we queued up at the public pay phone outside the Bank of Ireland, waiting our turn to make the call to France. During those few weeks in France, I wrote home every couple of days, long rambling letters about how homesick I was!

I was 19 years old, in my second year at university, when my parents got a phone in our house. Throughout my years at university, I would queue up – in cold, wind and rain – behind a long line of other students, waiting my turn to use a pay phone to call my parents at work, or from my second year on, at home.

During the three years I lived in Japan telephone calls were prohibitively expensive and my parents and I had an arrangement. They called me once a month and I called them once a month, so we got to talk every two weeks. Those phone calls cost a fortune, so our primary means of communication was by letter. We wrote long letters to each other. My parents’ letters were regularly wrapped up in newspapers, particularly during the summer months, when Daddy sent me the Monday newspaper each week with the latest stories from the weekend’s football and hurling championships. The newspapers were wrapped in envelopes you could buy at the time especially for posting newspapers. Japan really did feel like a long long way from home.

Shortly after I moved back to Ireland in 1998 I got my first laptop and my first email account. The friends I had made in Japan – Japanese, American, Canadian, Australian, British – all got email accounts at around the same time, and suddenly we were able to keep in touch easily and cheaply. Of course, the dial up internet service we had back then was painfully slow, but compared to writing a letter, it seemed like the speed of light.

The cost of international phone calls had started to come down too, so that when I moved to Nunavut in 2000 I was able to email my parents every day and by buying cheap international calling cards, I could phone them once or twice a week. That first year in Arviat I worked at the elementary school and most evenings after school I spent an hour in the computer lab, emailing family and friends in far-flung places. Sometimes at weekends I would let myself into the school to listen to sporting events on Irish radio on the internet. Listening to Michael O’Muircheartaigh’s voice brought me closer to home.

In January 2004, in Scotland, I got my first mobile phone, and now I could keep in touch with my family in Ireland via text message. We could send messages on a whim and the distance between us was cut even shorter.

And then came Facebook and Skype. What a world these have opened up. Sure, I’m critical of Facebook. I dislike the advertising. And I dislike when people I don’t even know want to be ‘friends’. (I ignore them). But it has made the world such a small place for me. My friends from Japan are all married now with children of their own; the kids I taught in Arviat back in 2000 are now parents; my old school and university friends are all moving towards middle age as gracefully as I am!! I love that I have the opportunity to carry on these important relationships with people. I suspect that without Facebook I would not have spent Easter two years ago with my friend Meredith and her family in Haddonfield, New Jersey, or visited Sara and her family last year in Princeton. Without Facebook my friendships with Gavin, Bernard and Finbar might have fizzled away to nothing. Without Facebook ataata Paul and anaana Linda would not have given Lily her Inuit name, Niviaq, and the relationships Lily has through her name would not exist.

In the three weeks that Julian and the girls were away, Julian and I emailed almost every day and we Skyped a few times. I Skyped my friend Katie in Bristol for a good old catch up, and I’ve been able, through Facebook, to keep in touch with my adopted family in Arviat during what is, for them, a most difficult time.

Compared to most people I know, Julian and I are lightweights when it comes to communication technology. Between us we own one laptop and one old mobile phone, but we don’t own a smart phone or a tablet or any of those other things. But with the improvements in technology over the past twenty years we are able to easily and cheaply keep in touch with family and friends all over the world. It makes travelling a lot easier, knowing that the people who are important to us can be in touch any time they want; and the children can talk face-to-face with their grandmothers any day of the week. In many areas of my life I am an unashamed Luddite, but hurray for technology that allows us to stay emotionally close to our loved ones.

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5 thoughts on “Keeping in touch

  1. I sometimes wonder what effect it must be having on children who are growing up now to never know what it’s like to have to wait for a letter to arrive, or for the cheap rates to make a phone call. I wrote letters to my friends as a child, and remember the feeling of getting a postcard from home when I was away on music camp. Emails and texts might be quicker, but you can’t store them away in a drawer or a scrapbook to come across years later and suddenly be dragged back to the day the letter arrived.

    • May, I couldn’t agree more. Letters are wonderful. I still have a rather embarrassing pile of letters (tied in ribbon) that friends wrote to me during childhood summer holidays. Some of my friends still have their letters from me too. And I still have all those letters written to me by my parents, aunts, uncles and friends when I lived in Japan. We have lost something precious no doubt. I encourage Lily and Katie to write letters and there’s a ceremony to going to the post office to buy stamps. Two days ago there was great excitement when Lily and Katie received a postcard from Winnipeg!

  2. Hi Martina – here I am back in Canada, able to get caught up on your blog.
    Yes, I agree, what would we do without email and FB and Skpe!! Now we (Gord and I) have to get good at Skyping so that we can keep in touch with our new grandson (John’s – one month old now!) and the new one soon to be born!! And with friends like you xoox

  3. Hi! I heard you on the radio earlier this morning! Such an inspiring story and I’m really enjoying reading through your blog 🙂 I’m Irish too and have been living in Barcelona for the past 7+ years. Thank goodness for Facetime, Facebook etc., it’s technology that is exceedingly important in my life. It’s fantastic for keeping in touch with my family but, at 29 I feel like my peers are more interested in portraying polished, superficial versions of their lives via social media rather than using it to maintain meaningful communication between each other. It’s kind of sad. I’d like to give letter writing a go but I’m not sure anyone else would go for it. Claire 🙂

    • Hi Claire. I agree, although they are times when I wish Facebook friends would opt for a slightly more ‘polished’ version of themselves. Seeing my young cousins’ selfies on drunken nights out is never pleasant! I’ve been trying to get my hands on nice notepaper, to encourage Lily and Katie to write letters. It’s so much nicer than writing on dull old white paper. But it’s increasingly difficult to come by. I’m on a mission to find some now that I’m home in Ireland. Martina

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