Address book is a family history, bound by tradition

Will Kenny, consultant
Will Kenny: The convenience of electronic contact lists is hard to beat.
Photo courtesy Will Kenny

By Will Kenny

Will Kenny, Robbinsdale, works as a freelance consultant. He is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.

When it comes time to send out holiday cards, my wife, Linda, pulls out our address book. And this annual ritual recently reminded us of a big difference between pulling out a physical, paper address book and pulling up a contact list.

These days, if you keep your contact list on your phone or your computer, you live very much in the present. When you update an entry in your electronic contact list, you just edit the information. You replace the old with the new.

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And when people are no longer connected to you, whether you somehow lose touch or they pass away, you merely delete them from your list, and from your life. At the same time, you delete a piece of your own personal history.

This year we decided to replace the original address book we got more than 40 years ago, when we were newlyweds. When we bought that original address book — a small ringed notebook organized by tabs marked with the letters of the alphabet — the personal computer did not exist, much less the smart phone. To update someone's address or phone number, we crossed out the old information and wrote in the changes on the same page.

As a result, our book had become a confusing jumble of cross-outs and cross-references. Yet as information was entered and re-entered, as additions and changes were made on top of the original entries, we laid down a trail of breadcrumbs that wound through the lives of friends and relatives over many years.

As Linda patiently devoted a few evenings to transferring information from the old book to the new one, all those past edits revealed 40 years of our personal history. Crossed-out addresses called to mind places where we had enjoyed spending time with friends and relatives in years past. We could easily see which siblings had moved again and again, like her brother Mike; and which ones, like my brother Jack, had stayed in the same place seemingly forever.

We delighted in watching the next generation grow, as when nephew Tom's address changed several times during his college years, and then he married and the name "Shannon" was scribbled next to his. Then their kids came along, three names crammed into the entry wherever they would fit, just as their parents crammed them into their busy lives.

Not all the reminders from that old address book were happy ones. Some couples, married for years, ended up with two separate entries after they divorced.

And, sadly, there have been subtractions. The names and last addresses of those who died remained in the paper address book, never deleted. As we examined each entry to decide what to transfer, we paused to think about those who did not make it to the new book, friends like Nancy and Erik, family members like Ray and Cel.

Today, certainly, my wife and I both have contact lists on our cell phones and on our computers. From time to time, we replace outdated information with new data. Now and again, we delete people from our contact lists, for whatever reason.

All the same, we continue to rely on our new address book. Besides being bound by old habits, our paper address book is blissfully resistant to being wiped out from a hard disk crash or from being dropped in a puddle.

Nor have we tossed out the old address book, now that all the current information has been copied to the new one. It remains one of those documents that capture our personal history, like birth announcements or graduation and wedding invitations.

The convenience of electronic contact lists is hard to beat. But that's not where we will write the personal history of our most meaningful relationships in the years to come. That precious information will continue to live, and change, and grow, in our very real, physical, paper address book.