rolodex_oldNext to the silver laptop, the modem, the iPhone charger, the printer/fax/scanner combo, there sits an old fashioned Rolodex file on my mother’s small wooden desk.

There’s something oddly comforting about her long-held habit of spinning the wheel and adding a new contact in ink, perhaps at some point drawing a line through a number or address to amend it should there be the need.

I still recall in college when she informed me she switched to pencil for my card. “You have a new number every minute,” she said. “I’m running out of space.” And it was true.

The thing about a Rolodex is that you never have to purge a contact. You can remove a card, of course; you can move it to its own section or take it out and place it in the back of a drawer somewhere, should that contact become irrelevant. Not so my iPhone contacts.

With a phone address book you have two choices: In or out.

Last night, after accidentally dialing an old “Christina/mobile” number and instead getting her mother at her own home (we had a very nice chat!) I thought it was time to purge my address list.

First, and most easily to go were the duplicates. (I love you Christina, but I don’t need six listings for you.) Then, the names I could hardly even put a face with–maybe a vague memory or a single image would pop up to jar the gray matter; say a mousy-haired young man sitting around a table in a memoir class reading about his mother’s china collection; or a woman with a Massachusetts accent and a ponytail who I seemed to recall on a stage next to me at UCB theater, trying desperately to save our Harold in the role of an alien firefighter.

Next were the people who I knew I’d never call again:

Colleagues from jobs in the 90’s who’d long since abandoned that email address–if the company even existed anymore.

A magazine editor whose introduction and subsequent trading-of-the-numbers I completely blew before I had the confidence to commit to writing.

A comedian I had gone on a single date with, fairly certain I’d take a second, until he spent the next night crying to me on the phone about his ex-girlfriend and something about a threesome, that I couldn’t quite follow.

Neighborhood parents from a mommy-and-me class in 2005 who had called it quits in Brooklyn and moved to Rye.

The psycho commercial director who went all Travis Bickle on us, shaving his head and eyebrows on a bender the night before the shoot.

Exes’ families.

College friends’ home addresses.

The pizza place in my old neighborhood.

Lots of lapsed colleagues who I know I won’t contact, but could find on Facebook should some urgent ex-contacting need arise.

An administrative assistant who used to bake us fresh cookies each week.

An old college buddy I’d run into once in 2001 and said “I’ll call you!” but never did.

First names that were unidentifiable even from the area code.

(Sorry “Beth” and “JS”–I’m sure you are lovely people. And “Brig?” No idea WTF that even means, but you too buddy. Enjoy the weather in the 310.)

There were even some cathartic deletes, like the writing partner who made my life hell in a way I would not have allowed for today. The old me would have hung onto that number, just in case. But not today. Today, I purge. Another clean slate in my life. Another place to declutter my life psychically. The essential closing of old chapters so new ones can begin.

All was well with my little plan (I’m so productive! I rock!) until I smacked head first into this impenetrable, jarring wall that oddly, I hadn’t really expected: The names of those  in my life who have died.

With some consideration, I deleted the Queens address of my step-grandparents Mickey and Nat I couldn’t justify keeping the Floral Park address in my contacts, the one I looked at once a year for holiday cards.

However I stopped when I got to Momsie, my own mother’s mother.

I couldn’t do it. The connection is too deep and still, too present. I want to see in my mind that long driveway leading into her condo complex. I want to smell the fresh white paint on the walls around the pool and the chlorine and the Florida palms. I want to keep that phone number committed to memory, with a safe place for it should I ever juxtapose a number or two in my head. Momsie stays.

Next I found my childhood friend Julie, whose name I simply changed to her husband’s, deleting her work email and trying hard not to look at the notes I had made about the names and ages of her children that still haunt me since her own death. I also found Florence’s parents, with her name and her sister’s name jotted under notes. This one was raw; it’s been one year this week since Florence is gone and that young promising life cut short far, far too soon. I couldn’t bring myself to remove her name from the contact.

Also difficult for me was the name Susan Niebur popping into view, her Twitter handle and URL and email still completed–the sign of a “newer” friend relative to many–and again, as with Momsie, I couldn’t muster the energy it would take to scroll down three swipes to reach that red DELETE button.

How can you DELETE a person? Isn’t there a better term we could use in that ominous red bar?

We have all these kindly if stupid euphemisms for dying: They’ve passed. We’ve lost them. They are no longer with us. The term deletion never comes into play. These people are far less deleted from our lives than those single dates or the fuzzy memory of that one girl, or the semi-clean Chinese take-out in another area code that saved us on lonely Friday nights year ago.

I can delete dan dan noodles take-out. I can delete that jerky guy with the ex issues. I can delete the random (401) phone number that leads nowhere.

Social media connects us but man, it makes it hard to unconnect. We all know the awkwardness when it’s time to unfriend an acquaintance, to detach from a former inlaw, to untether from an old relationship, to unfollow, to unfan, to unboyfriend. And yet no one talks about the simple act of deleting from an address book.

Poof. One touch. You’re gone.

I can finally understand the importance of that ratty, yellowing Rolodex on my mother’s desk, where people aren’t deleted with the push of a button. They stay, they move, they’re filed, they’re somewhere, they’re somewhere else. They are not, as in this technological world of organization through bits and bytes, simply in–or out.

There’s nuance to a Rolodex. And of course, all that lovely handwriting.

[photo hannes grobe]


44 thoughts on “Delete.”

  1. I knew where this post was going before I even opened opened it and yet, I still took that deep breath when I got there. How hard it is…how we still feel their loss. Susan is still in my iphone contact list and I can’t hit the delete button because I can’t.

    Hugs to you.

  2. That’s how I feel about my beloved Aunt Kit, who died at the age of 49 from breast cancer. It’s been years since she died but I can’t delete her name and phone number off of my cell phone, or contact list, or anywhere else. Cannot do it.

  3. You know what I sometimes do? Before I delete, I take a screen shot so at least it’s saved under my images… I do this with important or special DM’s, too, that always seem to disappear. I have serious issues with change and deleting…

  4. I am the last person who does not use a cell phone. (I own one for emergencies, but it’s just a phone that doesn’t even take pictures and I never remember to charge it.) So I still keep everyone in a small address book that I mostly go through at Christmastime. I ran into the same decision making process last year when I bought a new one and had to decide who to copy over and who to leave out. The old address book sits at the back of the drawer with a date on it about when it was retired, and it’s like a little time capsule. My grandma and other people who have died are still there and I like that. They didn’t get copied over, but they didn’t get crossed out.

    (That bit of nostalgia aside, doesn’t a good purge of almost anything feel great? Just cleaning out my bag from time to time makes me happy for some reason.)

    1. I think I still have my address books from college somewhere. I understand

      And yes, purging = good. If not a little melancholy.

      1. I’ve saved all my old address books from elementary school on. Every once in a while I’ll see my daughter walking around the house with one, pretending it’s a form to take orders for a restaurant or a doctor’s checklist and when I get it into my hands (if she allows) I give it a quick run through. Noticing the names, the notes, the area-codeless numbers I dialed so many times in my childhood that 30 years later I still know them by heart. It’s a nice moment.

  5. Ohhhhh…so painful. Deleting them once hurts and then doing it again and again in all the different social ways that we are connected is more pain. We should have a special section for memories, where we move people whose images and info we would like to gaze at again but need to remove them from daily use.

  6. What a strange world we live in. I wrote a similar post this year and felt the strangeness as I updated my new phone against my old phone’s address book. Two women who meant the world to me…my Grandmother and Raylene Rankin of The Rankin Family fame…both lost between my phone contracts. It made me remember how important it is to keep a paper address book…how beautiful it is to look back at all those names and notes. A diary of sorts…filled with so many precious memories.

  7. I wish there were an “archive” feature on my address book. I left my grandparents’ info in for a long time, then finally exported it and archived it on my machine. It’s silly because (a) I’ll never forget their phone number, and (b) I’ll never use it…but like you said, I didn’t want to just delete them.

    1. I would LOVE an archive feature. Wouldn’t that just solve it all? It’s not in your address book every time you scroll through, but it’s there–somewhere–if you need it.

  8. I’m also in the dearly departed-not-deleted group. It’s the one small bit of e-hoarding I still allow myself. Like the paper letters from boyfriends past that sit collecting dust in already dusty boxes, maybe one day someone will read these names and wonder who they are, but the deleting is for another day, by another hand.

  9. It’s hard to delete them. I still have both of my grandparents info in my phone, as well as a dear friend who was gone too soon. I cannot delete.

  10. I had the same dilemma after my beloved aunt recently died, and I was cleaning out my phone. A friend gave me great advice and told me that she kept the listing for a deceased loved one, but deleted the numbers because we still talk to those people, just in a different way. It’s definitely bittersweet when I scroll down and see my aunt’s name, but it brings good memories too.

  11. This is beautiful.

    At first, I couldn’t figure out why this hasn’t been a problem for me. Sadly, it isn’t that I don’t have friends and family who have died. Then I realized: it is that I keep losing my phones and having to enter all the numbers in again. Never thought I’d come up with a bright side to that.

    Of course, now I have finally bought a smartphone and synced my phone contacts with my Google address book, so this will no longer work.

  12. My mom died 5 years ago this June. Oddly, it wasn’t difficult at all for me to remove her from my phone. Perhaps because I never really called her with it, always used a land line. Well, it was a little difficult, but not like this. My address book, however, is another matter. I’m not sure if I’ll EVER buy another, because I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to copy over names and addresses, and not have hers included. Muh.

  13. At least I know that if I keep those contacts of the dearly departed, I will think of them each time I come across their info. Old boyfriends, gone. But, loved ones who I remember fondly will always remain.

  14. for the longest time after my dad died, my mom’s home phone still showed his name when the caller ID came thru – it was so weird, sometimes, I wished it was him calling.
    I think it took 5 years for her to call the phone co. and change.

    so, deleting/changing contact info is not easy except when a friend finally divorces a worthless blah blah and you get to change her name back.

  15. I have two voicemails saved on my phone. Birthday wishes from my grandma. I treasure the sound of her voice. Something so sweet about a 90 year old woman leaving me a VM on my mobile.

    1. Oh I wish I had that. How absolutely lucky you are, Kirstin. Make sure you download and save somewhere more permanent.

  16. My mother loved hearing from you as well! And no one needs six ways to reach me.

    I recently revamped my address book and had such a hard time deleting addresses. It feels so final and hard. One thing I cannot do is delete the birthday mentions on my calendar of those who have passed. So, every year, I wish a Happy Birthday to my Grandma, my Uncle Gil, and to my dad. I don’t think I’ll ever remove them.

    But that BIL who posted nothing but pro-gun posters on her Facebook page? Yeah, he was easy to delete.

    As always, you say it beautifully, Liz.

  17. I have my grandparents’ house key on my keychain. Also my parents’.

    My grandparents are dead, and their door has been remade into a table. My father and I don’t speak, and I’m not sure if/when I’ll ever be welcome in their home again.

    So, yeah. Some things stay with us.

  18. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately. More so in terms of social media. As it seems so harsh and personal to unfollow or unfriend someone. They know when you do that, they don’t know when they’ve been deleted off your phone. I have a friend, well former friend, who whenever I see her posts online it hurts me. A reminder that we once were friends and now are not. But to remove her from social media seems so final. Seems to say it really is done.

    1. In a way, the good thing about SM is that it’s never totally final. Just ask anyone who’s ever had Twitter unfollow friends accidentally for them. (Ahem.)
      But I understand. It’s like the new breakup.

  19. I still have a folder of old cast lists from plays. I used to keep them in case I needed to get back in touch with someone. At this point anyone I’d get back in touch with is in my phone or email or some social media site. But I still have that folder.

    As for deleting a person? Yes, what a disconcerting concept. It’s a strange world we are living in.

  20. I recently went though my contacts and deleted a bunch of numbers. I had numbers in there from my shuttle driver to get to and from work when i was going to college!! I figures I would never need that one again.

  21. I still have a rolodex, though I rarely use it anymore. But it’s there, on a shelf by my desk. And the weird/OCD thing I used to do with the people who’d died was I’d take a black sharpie and give their card a black border. That way, I didn’t have to delete them and I remembered them every time I spun by…

  22. So so true. My mom has a rolodex, too. My card expanded to 2 after i married a Naval Officer and started moving around the country.

    My grandmother’s contact is still in my phone. The email address I helped her set up and she never checked, the phone number I that didn’t change during the first 32 years of my life. It is still there.

    In a few days, my phone will remind me that it is her birthday. I won’t call her, I will never hear her voice again. But I keep her in my phone and in my heart, all the same.


  23. My Mom kept the voice mail greeting my Dad recorded for about two years after he passed. At first it was comforting. Then it became sad. The first year I didn’t mark his birthday in our family calendar was weird, to say the least. Not that I needed it to be there to remember.

    I don’t think of it as deleting anyone really. At some point it’s just acknowledging that life goes on, even without the ones we wish were still there.

  24. My mother died 7 years ago, which means I’ve gone through about four mobile phones since then. I still have her numbers in there. She had the same landline number for 28 years, but I couldn’t remember her cell number to save my life.

    My father died 10 years ago, and I still have his last business card in my wallet.

    Still have their house keys, on my high school prom-commemoration keychain.

    The people who matter aren’t gone just because the data is deleted.

  25. I change the Last Name slot for the contact info of beloved people that I can’t bear to delete from my iPhone to “<3" and then they simply go to the end of the Contacts list. It's comforting to me to see the heart sign in front of their first names, and yet they aren't in my active Contacts list.

    <3 Frank
    <3 Lori
    <3 Manny
    <3 Pop

  26. It’s interesting to find a modern moment of existential reflection in our cell phone address books. Probably society would be a better place if everyone took a couple hours to scroll through and consider the connections they’ve made, and the connections they need to break, to memorialize and to release. It could be a sort of modern-day Ars Poetica, a moment to reconsider connections in the modern age by using one of the most ubiquitous tools of its emergence.

  27. What an amazing post…I’ve written about the lost art of letter writing, but deleting a contact is a whole different animal. I could so relate to the ones who have died. I had the contact of an old boyfriend who died much too young and I couldn’t delete his contact information for a very long time. I finally did it because I knew if my husband saw that I still had it, he’d drag me to the nearest therapist. So yes, I deleted him. But luckily, I still have all his old letters and lots of photos so he’s not gone, he’s still in my heart for sure.

  28. I can’t delete an old friend who was senselessly murdered 11 years ago. It would mean something I’ve never been able to admit. There are family members who don’t speak to me, as well, and I have trouble acknowledging the lack of relationship. Deleting them would be even more of a failure. My failure.

  29. Next month will mark three years since my brother died — FAR too soon at only 39. His wife has since moved on and excommunicated herself from our family (probably a good thing) and I pray all the time that she never deletes his profile from Facebook, or takes down his blogs.

    It’s hard enough to admit that she’s happier without him (which I simply can’t accept), but equally hard to realize there’s still a part of him that she could take away from me.

    In my head, I realize I have tons of memories and will always cherish the childhood we shared. But knowing that his intimate/public thoughts could be deleted? Well, that just hurts.

Comments are closed.