Phoning Mother


This morning, just before waking, I dreamt of my mother. It was just a fleeting connection and very mundane.  I was at the kitchen sink doing the washing up and she brought me some more dirty cutlery to add to the pile needing to be washed.  Moments later, I woke up and felt both astonished at her appearance and bereft.

Ironic that it was today, Mother’s Day that she chose to appear.  She died with breast cancer twelve years ago, and of course I miss her – even though she often exasperated me or we disagreed on things.  I realise with hindsight though that although I was aware in a general sense that she did so much for me, I took a lot for granted and never really thanked her properly.  This morning’s episode reminded me of a story I wrote in the months following her death.

 

 Answer the phone Mother – answer the phone!  

     “This call is being diverted to another number.  Please hold.”

     Not again!

            “You have reached the mail box for …”

            “Nancy … Shorne.”

     My mother’s disembodied voice.  I listen intently, absorbing the tonal nuances and waiting for what else she might say.  You never know, this time it might be something different.  The two names are spoken distinctly, as though there is no association between them.  Nancy – pause – Shorne.  Two separate words, not Nancy Shorne, with the words running into each other with a combined inflective melody.  I listen to the message, hesitating.  Should I speak?  What should I say?    I dither and the silence extends into an embarrassment.  I hang up, feeling stupid and bereft.  Unfinished business is so unsettling.

       After a few moments I collect my thoughts and pick up the phone again. 

            “Nancy … Shorne.”

            “Ummm, it’s me Mum.  Just calling to see how you are.” 

     This time I’m prepared and hang up the phone quickly.  No pause.  I feel a little flushed and unsteady though. 

     It’s strange – it’s not as if I am a kid any more, but there are times when you still want your Mum.  I was surprised when it first hit me.  I was always quite independent and confident.  I had unexpected surgery a few years ago.  When I awoke, I was overcome by post-operative melancholy, to say nothing of pain, and all I could think was ‘I want my mum!’  That was bad luck, because we were in different parts of the country.  I wept miserably, saved only by a nurse of mature years who recognised my distress and isolation and sat with me for a while. 

     I would have phoned Mother then, but only local calls were permitted from my bedside phone, and I couldn’t walk down the hall to the pay phone.  I had to wait for her to call me, just like I am waiting now.  I wonder if she knows what time it is?  Perhaps that is why she hasn’t rung.

     Phones have become such a way of life.  They are more than just communication devices.   They are statements of personality, fashion accessories, reminders, companions, and cameras..  I have a theory that in the not too distant future, our phones will be the means of Big Brother keeping track of us all, and we will use them for everything.  They will hold all our identity information and through our personal phone number it will be possible to access our tax file number, credit card info, social security number, etc.  It will happen gradually and we will all be seduced by the gadgetry before we realise what is happening – a sort of pocket sized Trojan Horse.

     Mother’s phone is just of the basic variety.  It took a while to coach her on how to leave the message.  All she wants is to be able to make and receive calls.  It does have other features, but she never uses them and she seems to have lost the instruction book now anyway.

 Once, we used to solve our problems for ourselves, and now when we are unsure what to do, we automatically reach for the phone.  Our children are loosing survival skills, and are really dependent on their phones.  I know it, but I still reach for the phone for the simplest thing.

          “Nancy … Shorne.”

     “Mum, do you know where your address book is?  I need to do the Christmas cards and I don’t know where anyone lives.  I could send email cards instead, but it is nice at least once a year to actually post something.  I suppose all I really need to do is wait until other people send their cards and then just note the addresses from the back of the envelopes.  I’ll write some notes in the cards as well.  Is there anyone you particularly want me to write to?”

       While I wait for her to call back, I could have a look through her desk.  It seems a bit intrusive though – like looking in someone’s handbag.  They are such personal spaces.  If anyone looks in either my bag or goes through my desk it feels like a real invasion of privacy but how else can I find anything?  I’m very careful and try to put everything back just as I found it.  Hopefully she won’t even realise what I’ve been doing.

       Actually, I have been looking through her recipes too, but she never seems to file anything in a logical order.  A lot of stuff she just keeps in her head and never actually writes it down.  When you do read the recipes that she has written, she leaves out the crucial bits, like in which order ingredients should be added, or how long to cook things and at what temperature.  I have to sort of guess, or else give her a quick call at some crucial moment when I’m getting a bit panicky.

           “Nancy … Shorne.”

  “Mum, how long do you cook quince paste?  How do you know when it’s ready?  This stuff that I’ve got on the stove now looks more like jam.  It’s taken so long to peel and cook and sieve and cook, and it just doesn’t look like yours at all.  What do I do now?”

       I wait for a while, just in case she has just picked up the phone and has heard my message and is going to reply.  I know that’s silly, because although you can pick up the phone and interrupt a call to a land line that is connected to an answer phone machine, calls to mobile phones go to virtual mailboxes instead and you can’t interrupt those.  I still wait for a bit, but there is only silence, so I hang up.  With some answer phones, a silence is interpreted as a completed call anyway, and the device actually hangs up on you, the caller.  Bit rude.

     Having got this far with the quinces and seen how difficult it is, I think I will just buy some from the providores in future – there are some good stalls at the Central Market – but it seems such a waste to just throw out this batch.  I’ve invested so much time in it.  Perhaps I will just keep it as jam.  Pity I never eat it.  By the time she calls me back, it might well be Quince Toffee – a new culinary delight.

       Sometimes when I phone her I don’t wait.  I dial her number and that impersonal mechanical voice starts with This call is being diverted to …” and I just hang up.  I get a bit irritated.  I don’t want to hear that strange woman’s voice.  At least it’s not an American voice, like those you hear in lifts telling you what floor the lift is travelling to.  The phone companies seem to have developed some sensitivity to the local markets.  I haven’t thought about it before but perhaps this is a new job for current times.  Qualification – well modulated voice, slow delivery, absence of regional accent.  A bit strange – there would be exposure around the country, all day every day, but totally anonymous. 

     Even one of my printers talks to me, and tells me when it has a paper jam, or if it has finished printing.  Voices everywhere.  I wonder if there is an association for recorded voices, or whatever they might be called.  There is bound to be some very important sounding technological name.  What would happen if they all went on strike one day?  What would we do with the silence?

     Speaking of silences, I wish she would call me back.  It’s a bit of a one-way street, leaving messages and not getting a call in return.  I have my mobile with me most of the time, so I am always contactable.  I miss some calls when the phone is in the bottom of my bag and no matter how frantically I scrabble around, I can’t find it in time and it stops ringing just as I locate it.  She doesn’t have a silent number, so I would know if she had called.  Her number would be displayed as a missed call.

     Dad has the phone now.  He inherited it by default, but he is even more technologically illiterate than mother was, so he often forgets to take it with him, or even to switch it on.  As for changing the recording or even reading the messages, forget it.  He has no idea.  It means that any time I want to talk to Mother, she’s there, her voice permanently preserved in virtual reality.  It’s comforting in a bizarre sort of way. 

     “You have reached the mail box for …”

            “Nancy …  Shorne”

     “Hi Mum.”

                   24 June 2004

 

Shortly after this story was written, my father erased the recording, as he pressed random buttons on the phone, trying to figure out how things worked.  My trojan horse comment was more prophetic than I realised at the time.

 

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