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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

It was so thoughtful. My daughter gave me an address book for my birthday. She knows the one I have is tattered. I’ve had it for decades, it’s brocaded cover is worn, some pages are loose.

The gift is lovely; the cover is colourful, the pages are creamy white. My daughter lives in England and bought it at my favourite department store, Liberty in London. But I don’t feel free to use this gift; I’m tied to my old book.

My address book tells stories. My story, the way I moved around. Names added in different inks from eras in my life: studying in Winnipeg, working in Saskatoon, then Waterloo, then Edmonton. When I moved back home to Niagara, my address book contained the old contacts I needed to reconnect.

There are stories of friendships in this book. The comings and goings of my friends. The rolling stones who kept moving, their address crossed out again and again, filling one box after another. I started using pencil for some of them because they were taking up too much real estate! The paper in their box is thin, erased time and again.

And here are the friends who stayed put in their four-line box, the steady ones who never moved, happy to be settled.

Some friends married each other and there are arrows as households combined. Children’s names were added one by one, squeezed above their parents. Some get their own boxes as they move out.

There’s the couples who divorced, the partner’s name crossed out, a new partner’s name added. Sometimes several times.

And then there are names of people who I thought were fast friends, but who I lost touch with immediately, their addresses the tiniest of mementos. “Why would I have put that person’s name in here?” I wonder. Friendship nipped in the bud, who knows why.

This book has my family stories, especially the addresses of my loved ones who’ve died. Two whole generations of relatives. Grandparents, uncles and aunts. Phone numbers I know by heart.

I can picture their houses in intricate detail; the feel of the crocheted doilies on grandma’s coffee table, the cupboard under Uncle Ed’s staircase (perfect for hiding from the other cousins), the clean smell of Aunt Lily’s rec room.

The addresses are still there in my book, even though the homes are long vacated in the most permanent way possible. No forwarding address.

And there are my friends whose recent deaths are still a shock. I sent out cards last Christmas, as I do each year. I start with the A names and work my way through. I turn the page and see the address of a dead friend, the sorry surprise of it.

“How is this possible?” I wonder. I never cross them out. I want their name there, it’s their place. I don’t want to forget.

But this old book has hardly any room left unless I start meeting people whose last names begin with Q or Z. And it’s ratty and old. Maybe it’s time for smart and stylish.

I can keep this old one tucked away in the attic, after all. I can put it in the box with my deceased mother’s address book, the one with the white leatherette cover. It’s filled with names of people I don’t even know: Millie, Doris, Fred, Helen, Agnes.

I can’t throw her book away. It’s a way of keeping track; this person, these friends, those places. I see myself in her book, crossed out and reprinted, my migrations.

“Don’t you have all that on your phone?” my daughter asked me once when she saw me thumbing through my address book. And yes, I do have some of the contact info there, too. I admit, having it on a device is super handy. My daughter’s generation doesn’t use address books.

But changing addresses on a phone is so permanent, the old address is whisked away without a trace. You don’t see the person any more? Press delete. It’s like they were never there. Not even a space where they used to be.

No one sends letters any more, so mostly you don’t even need people’s addresses. You text them or maybe e-mail them. How quick to type off a few lines and press send. It arrives instantaneously.

Slow communication is an old story. Taking out a pen, finding some paper. I have boxes of lovely stationery. Which card should I choose for this person? Did I send them one with mountains on it last time? I remember they went to the Van Gogh museum when they were in Amsterdam, I’ll choose this one with his sunflowers.

It takes a while to write a letter. It’s going to be more than a paragraph, I’m paying for this to find its way across the country. What do I want to say?

It might take a few days to write the letter, then I seal it in the envelope. What’s their address? I take out my address book and copy it faithfully. A stamp … which one? These flowery stamps or just a serviceable generic one? I walk to the mailbox.

For some this is excruciating even to read about, it’s insanely slow communication. But why not? Time is a gift I give my friends and I enjoy it.

I picture them opening their mailbox and seeing the envelope. The surprise of something that is not a bill. I see them taking it home, sitting down and opening my letter. From my hands to theirs. It’s tangible. Keeping in touch.

The old address book sits on top of the new one, for now. The magnet on the cover clasp is strong as ever. It snaps shut with such a nice sound, keeping all the people from A to Z in order.

But my new Liberty address book whispers a story of new possibilities. Space for friends who I don’t know yet. I’ll get to it. It’s just a matter of time.

Carol Penner lives in Vineland Station, Ont.

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