The Loveable Luddite
(Unless otherwise noted, the Kathryn Tucker Windham blog posts are written by her children, Ben Windham and Dilcy Windham Hilley.)
My mother had many talents, but she never embraced the new era of technology. It’s not so much that she feared it; she just believed it detracted from the things in life that are more important.
In her hallway on Royal Street, Mother had a black Bakelite telephone so heavy you could crack a skull with the receiver. I have fond memories of that phone which is now in my home though, sadly, no longer functional. I swapped secrets with my young friends on that phone. The thick straight cord stretched just far enough for me to sit on the floor of the closet and whisper girlie gossip without my older siblings prying. Later, it was on that phone that I summoned up enough courage to call the dreamy Keith King and ask him to the Sadie Hawkins dance.
It was on that rotary dial telephone that Mother called NBC executives of the popular TV show, “That Was the Week that Was,” to scold them for satirizing goings-on in Selma. And on that phone, Mother would wearily take late night calls from an elected official who was “bad to drink” and liked to talk politics in the middle of the night.
In the late 60s, Mother consented to a second house phone, a wall-hanging plastic rotary phone in the kitchen, but she didn’t much like it.
The popularity of microwave ovens brought more opportunity to scorn technology. For all our growing up years, Mother put meals on the table three times a day unless, of course, we were in school, which saved her one cooking. They were not elaborate meals---I recall a lot of fish sticks, Kraft macaroni and cheese and big green salads---but she prepared them all and worked full time.
In the 1980s when my sister, Kitti, got her first paying job, she thought it would be the very thing to buy Mother a microwave for Christmas. Mother oohed and aahed over the extravagance of the gift. Some weeks later, when I was home for a weekend visit, I asked Mother why the microwave was not in the kitchen.
“It’s under Ben’s bed,” was all she said. Later, I took a look under my brother’s bed, and there was the microwave, boxed, with pieces of Christmas wrapping still attached.
The next epoch in our quest to modernize my mother came with the advent of the answering machine. Now this was a gadget of technology we knew she would embrace. Mother was not fond of long phone conversations. Sometimes she didn’t want to answer the phone at all, and it rang a lot at our house.
My brother and I searched until we found the simplest answering device available. One push of the button, and the caller went straight to the recording. We were practically giddy when we delivered the machine to Mother.
“Look, Mama!” we said. “You’ll never have to answer another phone call!”
Mother said she thought it was perfectly marvelous. We hooked the thing up to a phone jack, prodded her to record a greeting and left knowing she would fall in love with the new accessory.
About a week later, I ran into a friend of Mother’s from Selma who had recently moved into my Birmingham neighborhood. She told me she’d been trying to reach Mother by phone for a couple of days with no success. “It just rings and rings,” she said.
I knew Mother was out of town at a storytelling festival, but I was puzzled that her answering machine had not picked up. I tried calling her Selma number, and, just as her friend said, the phone just rang and rang. When she returned from the festival, I called Mother again.
“Where is your answering machine?” I asked with more than a little frustration.
“Dilcy, I don’t want to have to return all those phone calls,” Mother said. “I threw that thing in the ditch behind the house.”
From that time forward, we never inflicted technology on our mother. No cell phones. No caller IDs. No computers. She wrote her books on an electric typewriter until her final years when she traded down to a pen and legal pad. She had more important things to do.
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–Wayne Flynt, Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University.
Dilcy Windham Hilley
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