Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?

It’s the seasonal doldrums, with summer sort of over, fall not quite begun. I’m home for lunch, and Abby is bored, a feeling she expresses by hovering. Standing in the way, to be precise. It’s like one of the cats hoping I’ll fill its dish, except with less likelihood of her tripping me on the stairs.

I’m washing the lunch dishes, Abby lurking at my side. “Don’t throw those out,” she says. “They’re for my phone.”

Two tin cans, washed and de-lidded – a maple syrup tin and a can of tomatoes – sit by the edge of the sink.

“They’re different sizes,” I say. “Will that matter?” As if I know.

“It’ll work,” Abby says confidently. As if she knows. “But how will we get the string through?”

“With a nail,” I say, drying my hands and grabbing the tins. “Make a hole here, push the string through. Then you take a match” – I get a match from the box behind the stove – “and you tie the string to the end of the match to hold it in place.”

“Cool!” says Abby. “Why does it have to be a match?”

“Well… it doesn’t. It’s just what we always used,” I say. “Hang on…”

I run down to the basement to find a hammer and nail. Dishes? What dishes?

This is Abby’s second attempt at a string phone. The first wasn’t especially successful: two plastic juice cups, duct tape and a three-foot shoelace. “Can you hear me?” Well, of course I can hear you, you’re standing right there.

“It works a little,” I told her, “but I think you need to use cans. And real string.”

“Do we have any cans? Can you save them for me?”

As I punch a hole in the tins, part of me wonders: did tin can telephones ever really work? Or do I just think I remember them working? Maybe they’re like hearing the ocean in a seashell, something that allegedly works but is bunkum, like reiki or Trickle Down Theory.

I’m certain I remember my brother Andrew rigging up a tin can telephone between our second-floor bedroom and his friend Chris’s house about five houses up and an entire street over. How this feat was accomplished through trees and across multiple backyards without the assistance of professional linemen, I don’t know. I sometimes wonder if it happened at all.

Yes, I’m sure it did, and I’m sure the phone actually functioned, and I’m pretty sure every conversation on that phone went something like this:

“Can you hear me?”

“I can hear you. Can you hear me?”

“I can hear you. This is cool.”



Long pause.

“Are you talking?”


“We should say ‘over’ when we’re finished. Over.”


That’s more or less how my conversation with Abby goes once we assemble our tins, matches and butcher twine and stretch our phones from one corner of the backyard to the other. Damn right it works!

“Let’s make it longer!” I say.

“Yeah!” says Abby, all excited now.

We disassemble the phone and tie our twine to a longer piece. Abby runs to the far corner of the field behind our house, steadily shrinking as she hops over the grass. The string spools out behind her. We stretch the cord taut and lift our cans to our faces.

“Can you hear me?”

“I cmmm eeee oooo!”

“I can barely hear you!”


After we run out of things to say – which, quite frankly, doesn’t take long on a tin can phone standing in a field – I reel in our string as Abby scampers back.

“How does it work?” she wonders.

I explain about sound vibrations through solids versus air, throwing in facts about guitar strings, transmitters, receivers and some other stuff I pretend to know.

“You have a science fair later in the year,” I say. “You could do something like this.”

“Yeah!” she says.

Abby, you see, is days away from entering Grade 7, and I have been thinking – mildly fretting, actually – about how she’ll manage the workload, the social pressures, the avalanche of facts that’s about to pour down on her. She has her specific health and learning burdens too. But mostly with high school comes the end of childhood, the excitement of can phones replaced by the drama of cell phones. It’s also the end of the primacy of parents.

Abby and I walk back to the house. I’ve blown my lunch hour, but it’s time well wasted. “You could do an experiment about whether it works better with thin string or thick string,” I say.

Abby pauses. “Probably thin because it vibrates easier,” she says, hypothesizing, extrapolating, moving forward, getting fainter and fainter, but still and always connected by a thin, vibrating string.



About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
This entry was posted in Family - whadya gonna do?, It Really Did Happen! and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

56 Responses to Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?

  1. Lovely essay, Ross. As I dropped my 4th grader off for her first day of school this week, I worried too. It’s the first year she didn’t want me to walk her to her new classroom. That thin, vibrating string is indeed moving farther and farther away.

  2. Robin says:

    I like this, thanks for the idea…think I’ll try this at home w/my son when he gets back…. I do believe this was a lunch hour well spent for you.

  3. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    You’re a wonderful Dad.

  4. Elyse says:

    A delicious lunch, all in all!

  5. javaj240 says:

    Mine is entering Grade 12 — some days the strings seems like gossamer. 🙂

    Great post!

  6. El Guapo says:

    Did she wash the dishes in thanks for what you showed her?

    Sounds like a worthwhile and fun afternoon!

    • rossmurray1 says:

      She’s a good kid, not Mother Theresa!

      Yes, it was fun for sure. It’s weird what sticks with her. Last year, we went to Montreal for the day, had supper in an Indian restaurant and then went to see “Pirates of the Caribbean XXIII.” The way she talks about it, you’d think I had flown her to Paris. So you never know…

  7. You both are adorable. Yay for Abbey – she’s an awesome kid.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      She started school yesterday. It’s the school where I work, so I get to keep one eye open for her. She’s having a blast. Of course, it’s all orientation right now; classes begin tomorrow…

      • Is 7th grade considered high school then? In the states it’s middle school/Jr High. That mid way point btwn awkward child and awkward teenager.

        Aw – what do you do at the school? Resident funny guy?

        • rossmurray1 says:

          It depends on the province. In Quebec, high school is Grade 7-11. The school where I work, Stanstead College, is a private school with a university prep Grade 12 diploma as well. Growing up in Nova Scotia, there were some junior highs (7-9) and senior highs (10-12) but mostly just big ol’ high schools. You don’t tend to hear about “freshman/sophomore/junior/senior” in Canada outside of university.
          I’m the communications coordinator here, which is a catch-all position for a lot of tasks. Few of the kids and not all of the teachers know I lead a secret life as a humorist. Ever hear of Stephen Leacock? Often called Canada’s Mark Twain but I think more like Canada’s Robert Benchley. Anyway, he was an economist at McGill University most of his life. I’m kind of like him except not as smart, famous or beloved.

  8. ksbeth says:

    wonderful post ross, the age-old pull between letting go and holding on. always a challenge and never easy. i am a kindy teacher and a mother of 3 daughters now grown, so i know this balance that is so delicate)

  9. Laura Lynn says:

    I think you should get the Stephan Leacock award. Every dang year. One of my favorite quotes?
    “He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”
    Or…”A half truth, like half a brick, is always more forcible as an argument than a whole one. It carries better.” Or…If every day in the life of a school could be the last day but one, there would be little fault to find with it.
    Stephen Leacock rules! And so do you.

  10. Ross, I love this! I love your funny stuff but this is just so sweet and sincere. Abby is a lucky gal!

  11. Amanda Fox says:

    I read this last night on my iPhone when I was out, and I was trying to comment then, but wasn’t about to jump through all the “fill in this” and “fill in that” hoops that WordPress demands when you are away from your computer. When you text like an arthritis sufferer without the arthritis, it’s nearly impossible anyway. So I’ll say it now – I absolutely loved this. Some of you best work.

  12. Fishing line. Thus speaks the voice of tin-can phone authority. 🙂
    And Grade 7 is a real turning point–in some ways the end of gangly late childhood, but also the beginning of maturity and (some proto-semblance of) responsibility. Good luck to you both!

  13. Kylie says:

    Beautiful, funny, and heart-warming. I loved this post, Ross!

  14. NFred says:

    Lovely story!
    The dishes will always be there, you know? Who cares! Tin phones FOR THE WIN!!!

  15. Nice. Do you ever leave comments on the blogs you follow?

  16. monicahlv says:

    That is a wonderful story and a great learning experience for both of you. It brought back memories of the times my father help us with those kind of projects. I grew up with a stay-at-home father in the 1970s when this was pretty much unheard of in the United States. He was a chiropractor, and his office was attached to the house. My mother worked full time as a secretary for the VP of some company (I cannot remember the name). Unless he had a patient, he was always there if we needed him for anything. I remember one school vacation, probably Easter, he helped my younger brother and me with a tent we were trying to create between two trees with a blanket and some rope. It was such fun and he even improved it with a floor of plastic sheeting and another blanket. We used that tent all of the following summer.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      What a great memory. I’m often struck by the moments we remember with our fathers, and need to remind myself what an impact those moments can have. Thanks for the comment.

  17. Letizia says:

    I love your stories with Abby; she’s one cool kid. Must run in the family 🙂

  18. byebyebeer says:

    Aw, I have a 7th grade daughter too, so relate to your worries. Ours started middle school last year, and everything I’d fretted over wound up being for naught. She did really well, better than in elementary school. This year, well, we’ll see. Loved this post, am tempted now to try our own tin can phones.

  19. List of X says:

    If you draw an apple silhouette on a can, does it count as an iPhone?

  20. Pingback: The anniversary piece: now with extra self-congratulations! | Drinking Tips for Teens

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