June 16, 2021

Appeared in Skirt! Magazine

My mother’s been dead nearly two years now but her telephone number still lives in my head.

I dial it up and it rings into a void, into the ether, into a tangle of central telephone office wires leading nowhere.

Sprawled on top of a hill sits an empty red brick ranch awaiting a new owner, a new family, a daughter who will one day grow up, move away and dial home, knowing there is no one there.

An uncertain college freshman in the fall of 1969, I called home for an anchor, to feel the drag of family and know that there was a place I belonged. As my father maneuvered his Oldsmobile 98 through the gates of Syracuse University while my mother sat uncharacteristically silent, I was no longer so brave.

“I’m not sure I want to do this,” I said to my parents as I hugged my shiny new blue American Tourister suitcase in the back seat.

“It’s too late now,” my father replied as he looked for my dorm.

Between rolling joints and stringing love beads I called collect, dialing zero for operator and the rest of the number for sustenance. The phone rang ninety miles away in our family room, where my father had the television cranked up so loud my mother could hardly hear me.

I met my first husband that year. Two years later, not even twenty-one, I left college to marry. His law school was thirteen hundred miles from home. As we drove off to our new life, I sobbed as if my heart would break, waving goodbye to my mother who stood in the driveway waving back, Kleenex in hand.

When we got to Tallahassee I dialed home to ask how to make my mother’s meatballs. I called to ask if buying retread tires was ok, and I dialed during the Lawrence Welk Show just to hear my father’s irritated “hello” through the champagne music, and my mother tell me to “hang on” while she took the call in another room. I loved my father but it was my mother who was my support and my lifeline.

Nine years later I was devastated when my husband left me and I called to hear my mother’s sympathy and my father’s anger. Too soon I dialed to tell them I was remarrying and over the telephone wires that connected us I heard my mother crying.

Just three years later, I was embarrassed to dial home to say I had left my second husband and was moving to California for a great adventure. When I got there — alone, not knowing anyone, without a job, Christmas just two weeks away — I dialed collect every day for survival, to hear my mother’s raspy voice, a legacy of the cigarettes she was not supposed to smoke. I reached across three thousand miles to feel the comforting weight of family — to know that I belonged somewhere.

Over the next fifteen years I dialed 288-3095 every few days. I called to hear my mother’s judgments, for arguments, to gossip and to bitch, but I dialed mostly for unconditional love.

One March afternoon, on the spur of the moment, I decided that I would marry again, in the conference room of the company where I worked. I dialed and pushed the speakerphone button so my parents could hear the notary marry us. I didn’t know that in eighteen months my mother would be gone.

After months in ICU, near death, my mother was home and if she wasn’t completely perky, it looked like she had sprung back. Driving home every day after work I’d call from my cellphone to hear her voice, to know she was there again after so many weeks of silence. I called to connect my life to hers and in the process to keep her alive.

“Why are you calling me so much?” she asked me.
“You’re scaring me. Is there something wrong with me that you’re not telling me?”
“I just want to hear your voice because I couldn’t for so long,” I told her, truthfully. “I just want to hear your voice.”

Six months later she was in the hospital again. I was sleeping in her bed at my childhood home, when the phone jarred me out of sleep. “She’s gone,” my sister told me. Together, we drove to the hospital to say goodbye

It was also the day of my father’s long-awaited neuropsychiatric evaluation for the memory problems we’d ignored during my mother’s illness. Four hours after saying goodbye to our mother, a doctor told us our father had Alzheimer’s disease.

Months after the funeral, and after we moved my father into a very nice lock-down facility, I flew in to help clear our family home of its half a century accumulation and prepare it for sale. When the house was finally empty I looked around one last time and drank in every detail before I set the alarm and shut the door.

Back in California, I often felt the urge to dial 288-3095. I pictured the bell ringing in an empty house and wondered if my sister had asked the phone company to disconnect it yet.

The impulse to call was strong when my favorite cat died. It grew stronger when I was approached about a new job and it became overwhelming when my sister announced she would marry for the first time. Still, I never actually went to the phone.

A very nice family bought the house two months ago. My sister told me there were pumpkins out at Halloween and that she thought the new occupants have children. I pictured them gathered in the knotty pine kitchen for dinner in the early darkness of an upstate New York winter.

I thought about the way the snow covered the house during a big blizzard and how exciting it was for us kids. I thought about sledding down the big hill behind the house and about my father’s vegetable garden.

I thought about the mother standing in front of the sink like my mother did, and how she might one day pick up the phone on the white Formica kitchen desk to talk to her daughter who’d gone away to school.

The plastic felt cool as I placed my hand on the receiver.

In my mind, I picked up the up the phone and dialed.

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