Monday, January 5, 2009

The Back Doorbell

On a visit to Colorado some years ago, my mother regaled me with the various goings-on back in Kentucky, even going so far as to list the latest home repairs. When she remarked that my father had fixed the back doorbell, I puzzled a bit over her words, suddenly wondering about a household item that was missing from my own house. I hadn’t even known it was gone.

Later, unable to stop thinking about it, I speculated that that if someone rang my back doorbell today, I’d probably call 911—if I even had a back doorbell, that is. Why would I need one? In the fifteen years that my husband and I have lived in Colorado, no one has ever come to our back door to contact us. My interest piqued, I conducted an informal survey of houses in my neighborhood and around town. The evidence was overwhelming—modern homes have no back doorbell. Homebuilders eliminated the item long ago from their list of standard features.

But when I was growing up in a small Kentucky town, plenty of people used our back doorbell. In fact, there was a de facto social order regarding who came to the back door as opposed to those who used the front door. The neighbors and my aunt and cousins always came to our back door, signaling they were not “formal” company. Charlie Mayfield rang the back doorbell—our farmer friend who dropped off vegetables and fruit from his harvest. Butch and Dallas, the employees in my father’s electrical business, reported to work every morning at the back door. And once a week, Father Dave, our priest, rang the back doorbell to roust my father out for a bicycle ride.

The two doorbells, front and back, were located less than thirty feet apart. Each had its own unique sound, allowing us to discern immediately which door to answer. Depending upon that ring, we also knew what type of visitors to expect and where in the house to accommodate them. Front doorbell people were seated in the living room, including politicians, the Avon Lady, or my sixth grade teacher who came to review a class project. Conversely, folks who rang the back doorbell sat with us around the kitchen table. Never was the difference more clear than on the saddest day of my childhood when my little brother died in a traffic accident. Police, friends laden down with casseroles and cakes, the funeral director, and our tearful relatives—each rang the bell that reflected their relationship with our family.

Today’s standard is simple: all categories of visitors frequent the same door at the front of the house. Family, girl scouts, salesmen, preachers, friends, and strangers alike ring the front doorbell. Those people who used the back doorbell years ago have, like myself, forgotten what it represented or that it even existed. No doubt it vanished into extinction due to a combination of factors, including home security, the prevalence of two-income families that leave no one at home during the day, and our transient modern society. Neighbors are no longer considered extended family, as they change more frequently than they did a generation ago. The unfortunate result is modern society’s loss—the disappearance of the close-knit, back doorbell communities and their contributions to our everyday lives.

Since remembering the back doorbell of my childhood, I sometimes daydream about the people who might ring a bell at the back of my current house: a gardener sharing vegetables or plant cuttings; an old friend trading a piece of pie for a cup of tea; a neighbor searching for a good listener. Instead, even the front doorbell is silent most of the time, ringing only occasionally to announce package deliveries or a Jehovah’s Witness. The back doorbell’s demise was truly brought home to me when my parents moved from my childhood home to a newly built house across town. When I recently visited them in Kentucky, I was not surprised to note that there was no back doorbell. Even my mother didn’t request one for her new home. She knew no one would ring it.

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