I used to have a Google calendar reminder to call my mom every Sunday. I often didn’t. She wasn’t in the habit of calling me — some combination of not wanting to intrude and, I think, a holdover from the days when calling long-distance was expensive. The cell phone I got her, with its many free minutes, didn’t ever seem to make an impression, and was rarely charged. She liked landlines and communicating on her own terms. If I did get a call from her cell, once in a blue moon, it was her letting me know that her landline and internet were out after a storm, and I should tell my sister, too.
Whenever I called her, though, she was pleased to hear from me, and we’d have an upbeat, rich, funny conversation filled with politics, books and magazines. Sometimes she updated me on her thoughtful and/or eccentric neighbors in the Vermont township where she’d moved after my sister Kate and I left our home in Madison, Wisconsin. I tried not to interrupt her — one of my terrible habits — and she never interrupted me. She spoke in impeccable, smart sentences, without fillers or parenthetical digressions.
She didn’t ask personal questions, and never asked why I didn’t call or visit more. I was the one who always foisted myself on her, although once I arrived, she was glad to see me and put me to work pulling up wild rosebushes or picking up — and counting! — hundreds of black walnuts from under the tree in her small, tidy front yard.
Even if I got lost on the way up to Vermont (ending up on a long, slow country road after getting gas in a little town with no GPS service, say) and was hours later than I’d planned, she didn’t hold it against me. I can’t remember her bringing up any of my unbecoming traits or life experiences, unless it was as a shared joke, an affectionate and gentle riff.
When it got dark, we would sit reading companionably in the living room as the wood stove over-warmed my back. I would disrupt her reading with some thought or to show her a photo on my phone. She was happy to have me, happy to see me go and get back to her precisely ordered life.
She was a great emailer (and letter-writer before that), and sent detailed, funny replies whenever I wrote her. The last email she wrote me, a reply to my message about the long-ago loss of the child of a family friend, I put off answering, maybe because the subject was sad and her short note was unusually revealing.
When she was found dead of unknown causes (probably heart-related) last February, I hadn’t called her in three weeks, I think. It’s funny what a laugh line “call your mother” is. But do — if you have one, and want to be in touch with her, call her. Maybe even once a week. Especially if you’re a procrastinator like me, and prefer to call with really good news or some accomplishment or brilliant observation, or to uncover a great story or memory. Just call to call. Or maybe the person to reach out to is your dad. Or your sister. Or a dear friend who’s like a dad or a sister.
I was walking in the woods today and had the impulse to call her. I miss that opportunity, the number in my phone, the spur-of-the-moment catch-up. We weren’t the kind of mother and daughter who were “best friends” and shared everything. Quite the contrary. But we were very good friends, and she was a delight, on the phone and otherwise. (Most of the time, anyway. When it came to anything related to her health — she was a smoker and drinker despite, or perhaps because of, surviving pancreatic cancer — or money, she could be quite snippy and short.) How strange it is to lose this little, enormous hour, or possibility of an hour, on a Sunday.
As the holidays approach, in this second year without her, I am part of the legion of grievers who are wondering why we feel so incomplete. The winter memories start somewhere in early childhood, then fall off, abruptly, shockingly, at one age or another. Maybe we want to know more about a photo from the past, hear who’s visiting the birdfeeder, compare notes about snowstorms or family dramas. There are good stories and bad ones, and they all make us who we are. There’s something sacred about the simplest news, tossed off in a quick call on a walk to somewhere else.
There is a New Yorker cartoon (my mother was the most loyal and complete reader of the magazine ever — no contest) that I’m sure she found hilarious, and in no way because of my sister or me. In it, an old woman with a cane looks into her empty mailbox and kvetches, “Sacrebleu! Again with the nothingness, and on my birthday, yet!” The caption: “The letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to his mother.”
But seriously, folks: My mom loved getting snail mail, just like Madame Sartre. You might take a Sunday to write your mother, too. A postcard takes just a couple of minutes and a stamp. It’s fun to buy one, write a sentence or two, and drop it in the mailbox. And she might put it on her fridge. Is there any greater honor than that?
Emily Gordon has written for Air Mail Weekly, The Common Reader and Time Out, among other publications. Her poems have appeared in magazines including The Baffler and the Women’s Review of Books. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
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[This article may have been written with information from various sources]