Magazine

Connections

Mom, the landline, and me

‘The regular phone’ is my connection to my mom and to the past.

Gracia Lam

My mother, who is 89, is the last person I know who calls me on my land line, which both of us call “the regular phone.” I talk to her at least once a day, sometimes twice on her regular phone. Although my mother lives in an apartment in one city and I live in an apartment in another, we often talk about my childhood house in a small town, where we had a yellow phone affixed to the flowered wallpaper wall in the kitchen and a heavy black phone on the night table in my parents’ bedroom.

There was a telephone etiquette that we strictly adhered to. Never call before 9 in the morning. On Sundays, never call before 10. Never call during dinner hours. And never ever call after 10 p.m. unless there is an emergency. My mother and I still adhere to these rules.

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My mother tutors students in reading, follows politics, takes 3-mile walks, cleans her own house, and she drives.

“This is she,” she would say in our old house, using a slightly higher voice than usual, when she answered the wall phone in the kitchen. I was supposed to say, “May I ask who’s calling, please?” when I answered and it was for someone else in the family.

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I joke with my mother about how strange it would have been if everyone carried their heavy black dial phones whenever they left home, the way we do with our cellular devices, or used them to take pictures.

This morning we talked about walking into the quiet house, before we had an answering machine, before anything blinked or beeped. My mother would stand at the kitchen table humming as she sorted through the mail.

We like to play a game called “Remembering the house.” Remember when we hollowed out the big pumpkin for my brother to wear on his head on Halloween but it was so heavy he had to push it around in a wheelbarrow? Remember when the door of the Buick station wagon fell off in the driveway? Remember when we could hear the deer clambering up the snowy back steps? I remember my sister’s face when she answered the kitchen phone and learned her friend’s mother had killed herself.

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Land lines are supposedly good in disasters. You might lose connection to the cell tower, but you can have a connection to the outside world, if that world still exists. The truth is, I do cling to my “regular phone” as a lifeline, not in case of an emergency in the future, but for a connection to the past.

My mother says, “Remember when that boy Andy would call and you’d answer the kitchen phone and twirl, wrapping the cord around you, and then untwirl the cord like you kids were at a dance?”

One summer night I was with a boy in the woods. My mother called in a singsong voice from the porch, “Sweetheart, it’s for you!” and I scrambled to button my blouse.

My brother, sister, and I often heard the nuns laughing as they played basketball on the macadam court in the convent next door while we raked autumn leaves. We’d faintly hear the phone ring, and then race inside to see who could answer it first. I remember after the divorce, when my mother would talk quietly to men on the phone in her bedroom as I pressed my ear hard to the closed door.

After the last phone call ever with my mother, will I keep the regular phone? Even if I disconnect it, I believe I will keep it on the shelf, along with my beloved Smith Corona typewriter. I know there will be times when I will hear a phantom ring, even when the cord is severed. I will pick up the receiver as if it were a conch shell found on the beach, and I will say, “This is she. Remember?”

Patty Dann’s most recent book is Starfish, a sequel to Mermaids, which was made into a movie starring Cher. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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