You Miss My Mom – #1LinerWeds

If my mother were still alive, she would be 97 years old today. She made it into her nineties, but not this far. Those of you reading this, with a few exceptions, didn’t know my mom, so why the curious title?

My mom was a switchboard operator for most of her working life. When she retired, she was the switchboard supervisor for a Pennsylvania State Mental Hospital, but I remember her most when she was a switchboard operator for Kaufman’s Department Store in Pittsburgh. By the time my mother began working for Kaufman’s it was operating as a separate division of the May Company.

May Company stores included such well-known names as Lord & Taylor (New York), Famous-Barr (St. Louis, MO), Filene’s (Boston, MA), Foley’s (Houston, TX), Hecht’s (Baltimore, MD), Kaufmann’s (Pittsburgh, PA), LS Ayres (Indianapolis, IN), Meier & Frank (Portland, OR), Strawbridge’s (Philadelhia, PA), Robinsons-May (Los Angeles, CA), The Jones Store (Kansas City, PO), G. Fox & Co (Hartford, CT), and Marshall Fields (Chicago, IL). Eventually, all of these were folded into Macy’s, although some have been sold out of that company’s holdings.

When I was a child, Kaufman’s only operated the downtown store in our area. I remember riding a streetcar with my mom to visit the store during the holidays, to see the window displays and the toy department. We would always take the escalators to the top floor where the switchboard room was located. One of her coworkers had been her maid of honor and was a good family friend. I would stand by Erna while my mom visited with her other friends. Afterwards, we would have lunch in the store’s restaurant.

Switchboard operators had to know the store. A caller might ask to speak to someone in a specific department, but they also might ask if the store carried a brand of baseball glove. The operators all knew the best place to connect the caller. If the call wasn’t answered, the operator would take the call back, ask a few questions, and route the call to someone else. They knew the operating hours, the sales in progress and could give you directions to the store by every means of transportation.

Mom’s workspace

Why do I say, “you miss my mom?” This is how she answered every call:

“Thank you for calling Kaufman’s, how may I help you?”

Don’t you wish you could place that call today? This little bit of time travel is part of Linda G. Hill’s fun weekly series One-Liner Wednesday. If you have a one-liner, or if you would like to join in on the fun, you can follow this link to participate and to see the one-liners from the other participants.

108 comments

  1. Not sure what they were called over there Dan, but we used to have ‘Telephone Exchanges’ here that would have been full of switchboard operators like your Mom. I don’t know when it was last used as such, but they recently demolished my local one last year. It had lain empty for years.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a touching post, sweet tribute to your mom. And I remember riding the streetcar to the downtown Pittsburgh Kaufman’s, too! What a store that was, all of those floors and those holiday window displays. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much. It’s nice to read about someone else having that memory. I’m sure it played out in every major city, but Kaufman’s will always be special. I’m glad you enjoyed this.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, YES! I do miss your mom! What memories you brought back! I worked in a local department store while I was in college; it was all about the customer, and it was great fun. It was also very near Chicago, so Marshall Field’s in the Loop was familiar territory; its elegance is but a memory now. There are many who mourn its loss just as we mourn the loss of real people like your mom. A happy birthday to her and a salute to her memory! Also a word of admiration on that photo of Maddie with her favorite puddle — I think that’s a really great photo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Visiting those stores was always special. When I moved to Connecticut, G Fox’s downtown Hartford store was still open. I used to go there at lunch. People working in those stores, like you and my mom, were focused on customer service.

      I’m glad you Ike the puddle photo. I’m never sure why she’s drawn to that puddle, She mainly avoids all the others we see.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Where to start, well, I guess with a birthday greeting to your Mom and a thank you for her years of service to her community and employer. ‘If only’ we could find a company that provided that kind of service today, they’d be overflowing with customers. My husband worked his entire career for Ma Bell so this hit home on that level, and I’ve also shopped Lord & Taylor, Famous-Barr, Filene’s and the Jones Store. These days, if I find an employee who gives me good customer service I go above and beyond to thank them. I love Maddie and her puddle. She should have a week full of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My mom started as an operator for AT&T but moved to Kaufman’s when she went back to work one my brother an I were in school. My father’s sister, who lived next to us, was an overseas operator for AT&T. I remember going to “Family Day” where they took the kids on a tour of the switch room and gave us a ride up in a bucket truck. I share your sense of amazement and gratitude when I find a helpful employee these days. Whether it’s on the phone or in person, I do my best to thank them. No walk today. We were just outside on business, and we are soaked.

      Like

    • I read recently that many new businesses, especially restaurants, aren’t even having phones installed, They want people to order off the internet only. Customer service has switched from it being their privilege to serve customers, to our privilege to shop. How much time we waste navigating those voice menus. I used to build them, and I know they could be made easier. When they are hard to use, it’s by design.

      Like

  5. Those were the days alright. Now you only get a recorded message that starts “Due to higher than normal call demand, …” They might just as well be saying “Go #!*! yourself. We don’t care what you want.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Higher demand used to be something businesses enjoyed having and were prepared to handle. I remember my mother being called into work because things happened and high demand was expected.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a beautiful post, Dan. I truly wish you could make that call today to say Happy Birthday.

    I worked on a very similar switchboard so I know your mom had the responsibility of making the first impression of the company to its customers.

    I can imagine the two of you together on the streetcar and having lunch together. Such Sweet memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The Shadow man is back! I love the picture of Maddie in the puddle with the reflection. My mother worked switchboard for a while and she said it was one of the hardest jobs she ever did. That was a time when people knew what they were doing and had manners. I miss my mom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There was a lot to know, and you were representing the company. When my mom worked at the mental hospital, she also had to coordinate emergencies. Every now and then, usually at night, a patient would “elope” (their word for escape) and she had to call a zillion people – doctors, security, local police, family members. All the information came back to her. It could get quite hectic.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Happy Birthday to “mom” in Heaven. She must be so happy with your one-liner and tribute. Yes, I MISS YOUR MOM and all those wonderful switchboard operators I talked to over the years who were so kind and gracious and actually knew what they were talking about!

    Shopping in Macy’s and Altman’s in White Plains, NY was an experience in customer service as it was meant to be. Even today, the staff in Macy’s go out of their way to help you, whereas the staff in these big box stores go out of their way to avoid you.

    Maddie not only has her own deck, she has her very own puddle! Now that’s special. Would you look at Old Glory against that blue sky! Beautiful sight.

    Thanks for the nostalgic trip down Memory Lane. You’re right. We didn’t know what we had until we messed with it to “improve” our lives.
    Ginger

    Liked by 1 person

    • Macy’s closed the store that was nearest to us, many years ago. I liked department stores. Before it was Macy’s, it was G Fox. When I first wanted to buy a VCR, I was looking there. The salesman was amazingly helpful. He explained everything. I left to continue shopping. When I was ready to leave the mall, I stopped back and bought the VCR. The salesman said “I thought you were going to go buy it at a discount store.” Which I suppose a lot of people did. I checked the prices at the discount stores later, and I could have saved about $20 – his service was worth it. Today, people scan items in stores to see if they’re cheaper on Amazon. We will learn at some point – or maybe we won’t.

      Maddie loves that puddle, and she likes how her porch and deck are now warm in the afternoon (not today). When we go out, she usually has an agenda.

      For some reason, this flag (replaced last October) has remained bright. I enjoy seeing it waiting for us.

      I hope you have a nice, albeit wet week, Ginger.

      Like

  9. A great post, Dan. Switchboard operators like your mom were a true blessing who definitely had to know the store. When I first moved to Florida, my first job was as the store secretary at Montgomery Ward. Sometimes I had to work the switchboard, and I dreaded that job! One time someone called asking for ‘foundations.’ I had no idea what that was, so I asked, “Building supplies?” Woman on the other end was so ticked off and said, “No! Bras and girdles!” I had never heard them called foundation garments before. God bless your mom. She would have known that.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a lovely tribute to your Mom. I miss real live operators too.

    It surely was a beautiful day in your neighborhood. The green grass at the park was the lovely surprise for me. Our grass is green again, but oddly enough across the street where they get sun most the day it’s still waking up.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Yes, Dan, I miss your mom and anyone else who used to answer phone calls in person. I doubt there’s a person alive who likes automated answering, especially when you go through ten steps of pressing numbers and can’t get a simple question answered.

    Kudos to the people and their businesses who still answer the phone in person and Happy Birthday to your mom in heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Mary. I don’t think we could have imagined in the 60s how awful the customer experience would become. Speaking to a machine that has no desire to make you happy. It just can’t work the same way.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I do miss your mom, Dan. I had a horrible experience with the customer service group at my bank. The representative was grumpy and kept asking me questions in the vein of how did I screw up. Long story short, after 45 minutes of grief, it was decided my mobile app needed to be reinstalled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ugh, I am sorry, John. When hear stories like that, I just shake my head and think, “and yet they want you to rate and recommend them for handling your call.” It’s absurd. I was moved to write this when, during the course of a 40-minute chat with the cable company where the subject was “WiFi range is much lower than previous modem” the person asked THREE times if my connection was wired or wireless.

      I hope you have a great rest of the week.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. A wonderful tribute to your mom, Dan. Your mom had an important job at the Kaufman Company. I wish many companies still have a live person answering and forwarding the calls. Instead, I have to listen to the recording and press the right number to be switched. Even after being switched, I’d have to listen to a long list of names in that department to be switched again to that person in the department.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I love this flashback. I’ve been having particular trouble this week with getting phone calls answered or returned and fondly remember the days when actual humans cheerfully answered business phones. I’m sure there were many people who loved hearing your mom’s voice on the other end of the call.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You called. They answered. You told them what you wanted. They connected you with the right person. What an amazing concept. Four steps that most companies can’t dream of offering today. Thanks Laura. Better luck on your next call.

      Like

  15. What a wonderful memory, Dan. And, yes, it was a big of time travel. My sister once worked as a switchboard operator for Southwestern Bell Telephone. My how things have changed. Love the photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Happy Birthday, Mom. We have some life parallels, Dan. I remember the bookmarks and the bowling. Hubby’s Mom, who lived to almost 101, was on a bowling league for many years. My mother was a switchboard operator for quite a few years, the most for the Sears Roebuck Company in Baton Rouge. During our tough times she had to work all day and often we rode with my Daddy to pick her up. We loved those days cuz he would let us go the candy counter and pick something out. What a thrill to get that little pink and white striped bag with about a dozen chocolate stars or chocolate covered peanuts. Thanks for the sweet memory. I love the reflection shots, especially Maddie’s favorite puddle. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Cheryl. Every now and then, it’s fun to think back to some good times. I doubt you could make kids today truly understand what it was like. It’s what we knew. It was fun and it was enough. I loved being able to pick out a few pieces of candy.

      Like

  17. Maddie and the puddle caught my eye today, Dan, and yes, I miss your mom when I make a call to most places, especially those that force you to ask for “Operator” or “Customer Service” or “Representative” over and over before actually allowing you to speak to someone. We had Kaufmann’s in Cleveland before they turned into Macy’s and one of my sisters-in-law has been a top salesperson for them for many years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wasn’t sure how far Kaufman’s had expanded. Salespeople in that store were remarkable. I never met one that didn’t completely understand what they were selling, and what your options were. I remember buying clothing for my wife in G Fox, and getting so much help from the saleswoman. I programed a voice mail system for over 25 years. When you experience frustration, it is because it was designed that way. They could make it very easy to navigate if they wanted to.

      Maddie loves that puddle. Whenever she sees it, we have to go visit.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Happy birthday to your mother! Boy, do I miss the days when you could call a business and, without entering a bunch of additional prompts (so they can serve us better, don’t you know) actually talk to a human who wanted to help you. I remember May Company stores here in SoCal and I remember going to “fancy” lunches there with my mom. Lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Happy Heavenly birthday to your Mom, dear Dan! This beautiful memories, once upon a time I have experienced to work as an operator and like your Mom’s workplace… What a time,…everything changed. This was beautiful tribute… Thank you, Love, nia

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re very welcome, Nia. These people were so important, and I don’t think we’ve ever found a suitable replacement. We’ve managed to save money, but we haven’t replaced the service.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That is the worst part, Robbie. You navigate the system, wait, endure crummy music and then get connected to someone who can’t help you. Those operators could connect you to the right person, even if you were calling to complain.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Happy Birthday to your mom in heaven. I bet she smiled when you posted this. My mom worked at a switchboard before she was married, and my two aunts had long careers with the telephone company. I was trained to answer the phone politely with, “Hello, who do you want to speak to, please?”

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Lovely memories, Dan. The big department stores with window displays and an escalator were childhood favorites. Do you remember the tubes that sent payments, with a big whoosh, to another floor in the store? And, keep those puddle photos coming!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Happy Oh-So-Belated Birthday to your mom and my ongoing condolences that she’s no longer with you <3
    As a person who deals with an extraordinary number of phone menus and muzak, I am always thrilled to get a human on the line.

    Liked by 2 people

Add your thoughts or join the discussion. One relevant link is OK, more require moderation. Markdown is supported.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.