Thursday, March 12, 2015

on the phone with my mom

There's my mom, now with an iPhone. 


I have a confession: I hate talking on the phone. This becomes a problem when you move 3,000 miles across the country. And it's even more of a problem when your mom doesn't know how to use email.* I guess college helped me to get into the habit of calling her. I was two hours away, which was close enough to come home just for the weekend, but far enough that I didn't make that a habit. I don't remember now what we talked about in those early days of my living away from home. I probably told her about my classes, she probably told me about the flowers in her garden. I'm sure we talked about my sisters (and that they talked with her about me).

I went through a stage soon after I moved to Los Angeles in which I blamed my parents for all that was wrong with my world. I was 25 years old, and at the time I thought my feelings were completely unique to me - and I guess in some ways they were. But I came to realize that that's a stage that most of us need to go through to separate from our parents, to deal with disappointment, and then to move on. I didn't call my mom as much during this time. What used to be a weekly Sunday phone call stretched to every other week, or more, sometimes just once a month. I asked my mother at least once why she didn't call me in the interim. "I figured you were busy," she replied. I couldn't tell if the hurt I detected just on the edge of her voice was really there or if it was just that I wanted to hear it.

More than once I talked to her about love. That was when I was younger and more reckless about the whole venture. The time I broke up with my boyfriend two days before Christmas, and he was supposed to come home with me for the holiday, I called her before my trip to tell her. "Oh, Betsy," she said. Later, desperate to connect despite the 3,000 miles and young-adult blame that spanned between us, I told her about boys I liked and wish would like me. She responded mostly with non-verbal affirmations so that I could tell she was listening, but little else. I wonder if she knew how lost I felt trying to navigate those friendships and feelings, and if she felt just as lost trying to keep her ever-leaving daughter close to her.

At some point, showing up for our phone calls seemed to get easier for me. They started to not feel as much like an obligation as a healthy discipline. And as I get a little older and less self-absorbed, I realize our conversations are really so valuable. A few months ago we started talking about my aunt, who at age 67 is living in a nursing home with advancing Alzheimer's disease. My mom and I didn't talk much about this when it first happened - when my aunt and her husband sold her home a few years ago and moved into assisted living. My mom told me about her visits with her older sister, and why sometimes she avoids visiting. She told me how my aunt likes to look at old photo albums but stays mostly quiet, while my mom makes small talk with her sister's husband. My mom told me how she started to see the unraveling of her sister's memory as long as 7 years ago, around the time my Pop-pop died. Now I can't imagine what that must have been like for my mother - to lose her last living parent, and then see that her sister was leaving her, too.

It was February then, the ground all around my mom still frozen by the long, cold winter nights. A few days after the funeral, I hopped on a plane back to Los Angeles, to my life in the sunny distant horizon, where she reached me every couple of Sundays on our weekly phone call.

*My mom still doesn't use email, but she does text. With emojis.


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