It was a simple thing. A longtime family friend had just died, at close to 100 years old, in a northern NSW town and my mother asked me to get the postal address of one of her daughters. So as she watched I tapped at the screen of my phone for 30 seconds and, magically, there it was.
My mother is amazed by the information on my phone. And so am I. And at her age, 95, if I get there, I imagine I'll be as mystified by the magical powers technology gives my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Occasionally she'll ask me to see if my phone will tell me what happened to someone she lost contact with years ago, and after a few taps I tell her when that person died (when you're in your mid 90s most have died), whether her husband had died, the names of her children and whether any had died, where they'd lived, and all the detail you'd expect to find on your phone.
Who, she asks sometimes, puts all this personal information on the internet? She knows it's called the internet but she doesn't know what it is, and my grasp is only marginally better.
Some things she doesn't try to understand. Like how I could find on my phone photos from the 1950s of her father as a teacher with his pupils and as a cricket umpire with cricketers. They were on a local history Facebook site, by the way. Or how I could find an aerial and street photos of the house she lived in as a small girl when all she could tell me was that it was opposite a quarry on a country road near Cooma. Google Maps.
Anyway, having found the old family friend's daughter's address, I wrote it and the daughter's married name on paper and gave it to my mother, who wanted to send her a card. What, my mother asked, was the husband's first name, and I looked to my phone again and told her. So, she said by way of checking, she'd address the card to Mrs John Smith.
Whoa! I'd forgotten about that custom, of addressing women as the Mrs of the husband, and I tried to convince my mother that addressing women in that way was not only not done now, it was not acceptable. I could see that she didn't believe me, and I hope the daughter was not offended if the card did arrive so addressed.
Just as phones have come a long way, so have women.
I remember as a child being puzzled that letters to my mother would use my father's full name, as in Mrs Frank Corbett, when I knew it was my mother who was the Mrs and he was the Mr, and even more common was mail addressed to both of them as Mr and Mrs Frank Corbett.
Then when I married 40 years ago I was noisily thrilled whenever a letter arrived addressed to Mrs Jeff Corbett. They couldn't arrive addressed as that often enough, and by this time they didn't arrive often at all.
The sentiment behind addressing my wife, Judy, as Mrs Jeff Corbett was clear. She was my property, she was dependent on my patronage, and that all the important information was incorporated in the identification of her as the wife of Jeff Corbett. She was so subordinate and submissive to me that attributing to her a name other than mine was unwarranted. I loved it.
I've never received a letter addressed to Mr Judy Corbett, although I'm bound to now, and it would be a fitting form of address for men who've gone from rooster to feather duster the day they retired. When I try to imagine being addressed that way as a matter of course, of having my station in life assessed as a possession of my wife, I can understand that it could have an impact on how I'd see myself.
As you'll know, when women were addressed as a possession of their husband they were a long way short of having equal rights, even in theory. They had the vote, almost by way of consolation, but they couldn't borrow money without their husband's approval, their rights over property fell well short of their husband's, they weren't entitled to equal work and there was no pretence of equal pay for even the same work.
I suspect equal pay took so long to become recognised as a right because it was generally believed that there could never be equal work, that women in even the same job as men were doing work of a lower value.
The title Mrs Jeff Corbett was both a reflection and a reinforcement of these attitudes, and some may linger still. It was just 20 years ago, remember, that the husband's superannuation became part of the equation for a property settlement in divorce.
The continuing use of the husband's surname as the wife's married name carries a suggestion that the old attitudes have not been completely disowned. I believe that a woman's adoption of the man's surname is seen as marking the end of her previous life and the beginning the new life.
In older times it may have been about the woman moving from the patronage of parents to the patronage of a husband, but in modern times it is about creating a barrier between the woman's previous relationships and false starts and her new life as the wife of the man who provided the surname.
Not only is there no such barrier for the man, there is no need for such a barrier. I won't be whipping myself into a frenzy of indignation about that.
They couldn't borrow money without their husband's approval, their rights over property fell well short of their husband's, they weren't entitled to equal work and there was no pretence of equal pay.