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.”
“THIS IS COOL!”
“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.