Colorful memories of my mom depict her on the telephone with my grandmother having heated arguments. Then they abruptly hang up on each other. But Mom squabbling with Nana didn’t sever their relationship. Calm conversations generally resumed within the hour.
Neither my mom nor grandmother worked outside the home or drove. That meant they were mostly housebound, and in pre-internet days, the telephone provided the primary mode of socialization.
My mom phoned my grandmother several times daily. She had the same routine with her best friend, Ciel, and her cousin, Edie. My dad flew into a rage when he’d arrive home from work and discovered her yakking on the phone. He’d also loudly complain when any one of the three called during dinner time. Despite his resentment, it was Dad who burst into tears when I informed them that Edie had just died. Mom just sat there in stony acceptance of the news.
Was it nature or nurture that impacted my phone use? When first married, I, too, did not work outside my home nor did I have a car. Therefore, my socializing mostly took place on the phone.
One day, I notified Pacific Telephone & Telegraph because the telephone no longer worked. The repairman quickly discovered the problem. “Ma’am I must tell you that you have worn out the dial.”
When my husband heard the diagnosis, he teased me for years: “My wife is the only woman I know who ever wore out a phone dial!”
When dementia started to appear during Mom’s eighth decade, she still called me often. She never forgot my phone number. Once, when I was at home recovering from hip replacement surgery, she fell out of her wheelchair at her residence and broke her wrist. Although she remembered little else, she still recollected my phone number and had an ER nurse notify me.
Toward her last years, I clocked her calling me eight times in one day. I never reacted with anger. I realized she didn’t remember that she had just called, yet I confess it annoyed me.
Once, she called and said, “You know, it’s a funny thing. I haven’t heard from your dad lately.”
Suppressing my alarm, I patiently explained, “That’s because he’s dead, Mother.”
“Oh,” she quietly said as I reminded her that he had died five years earlier. Then I gave her the details surrounding his last days. She wistfully replied, “I still wish he were here.”
When she repeated this desire, I responded, “But Mom, you wouldn’t really want him back when he was in such a debilitated state, would you?” Reluctantly, she agreed.
For some reason, I felt compelled to be honest with her and set her straight. In retrospect, insisting on the truth helped me not feel crazy. I had to re-root myself in reality.
My brother and I moved her to a retirement hotel for the last three years of her life. She never complained and instead expressed her contentment with the facility: “I couldn’t be in a better place.“
My husband and I visited her every week and by now, her memory loss had worsened. At these weekly visits (and never fear, she and I had multiple daily phone calls in between visits), verbal exchanges never varied. First came the inventories of how the children and grandchildren were faring. Next she asked if I had I recently spoken to my brother. The final question referred to a childhood friend. Mom had forgotten that this friend and I had not spoken to each other in over 30 years.
Mom: “How’s Lois?”
Me: “She’s dead, Mother.”
Mom: “Really? What happened?”
Me: “She needed a liver transplant.”
Mom: “Oh, that’s too bad. Her mother must have taken it very hard.”
Me: “No. Her mother is dead, too.”
Then Mom would pause and say, “I’m not going to ask about anyone else. They’re all dead.”
This repartee became so routine, that I steeled myself for the questioning to occur at least twice per visit. After a while, when I got to the words, “liver transplant,” I could not silence my giggles. I felt so guilty laughing about such a serious ailment it only increased my urge to laugh. To make the situation worse, my mom had a caregiver who looked startled to see me react so bizarrely over someone’s dire physical condition.
After months of this questioning cycle, I realized that I didn’t have to tell the truth. This time when the interrogation began and we reached the topic of what happened to Lois, I simply answered, “I really don’t know,” to which she declared, “They always were such a secretive family.” This time I didn’t stifle my laughter.
Mom died in 1999, and today I would give anything to talk to her on the phone again. I would happily report on all the family members as well as deliver an uncensored report on what ever happened to Lois.