Long Distance (A Memoir For Mothers)
I called my mom on Easter Sunday, trying to bridge the distance between us and capture a feeling that I live nearby. But I don’t. Those days are past. I’m nine thousand miles away, though I might as well be on the moon, as she sees it. We communicate through outer space anyway.
To be honest, when Mom and I talk, our conversations are light on substance. A plucky catch up about how we’re feeling – allergies and sleep patterns are typical topics – what we’ve both been up to in the past week or so, how Noodle is getting on, his preschooler mischief and his bicycle tricks and his days at kindy making friends and drawing letters and colouring inside the lines. He’s a little boy, as I was, as she remembers. In the chit chat are filtered histories and memories, and that’s why we talk. To tie then to now, as close to in person as we get these days. But proximity is our only limit. In reality, we are one.
I dial zero one four four six to access our calling card network, then press one for English, then dial zero zero one to access the United States, then dial her telephone number, which is one of the few I know by heart. One should know mom’s number by heart, I reckon. The signal beams from the receiver in my hand to the base unit in the bedroom sitting atop my wife’s cedar hope chest, through the wires in the walls to the wires dangling from concrete poles dug into the footpaths along Lake Road, across the Harbour Bridge to the city substation, routed through a satellite dish, beamed to outer space, reflected from one satellite to another and to a ground receiver station closer to my mom than I’ve lived in twenty years. Her caller ID comes up with a scrambled mess of numbers that she doesn’t recognise, but a voice on the other end she does, satisfying a hope she holds every time the phone rings. I say “hello.”
Thinking back, being a kid wasn’t easy. My mom was single again when I was four – same age as Noodle now, and familiar triggers draw me back to this simple fact. My dad used to pretend to sit on me when I got to his chair before he did. The chair was black and leather with a high back, and in it you could swivel from the cigarettes on the left to the beer on the right. I grew up in the days before remote controls, and the chair was dangerously close to the television.
Now, usually when I’m cooking dinner, Noodle spreads himself out in my low-back blue leather chair, a bookcase beside it covered in notebooks – I’ve got my habits too. Noodle laughs as I sit down with my plate and pretend to crush him, unnoticed as the matchbox cars and popcorn I find wedged between the arms and the seat. He laughs when I “prickle” his cheeks with my whiskers, the same gut-deep laugh I used to give when my dad scrubbed my belly with his nineteen seventies flop of hair. Then all of a sudden I remember turning four and those days vanished. My mom could have given up or she could carry us forward, and, well, here we are.
Those days were damned difficult for us. We were low on money, time, and everyone’s patience was threadbare as our handed-down jeans. A poor economy rarely lifts spirits, and none of us were immune to the new pressures. I’d like to say I’m no stranger to grudges myself, and I feel we’ve all since made amends as best we can. Not always in declarative sentences, mind you, but in kindness and movements toward one another as the grips of our grudges loosened.
Mom worked as secretary to the principal of our elementary school. The pay was terrible and we learned to make the best of things. Rather than playhouses and indoor recreation venues, we climbed the stacks of sewer grates and manhole covers at the cement company that backed up to our house. They were towers and castles to defend against invading hordes of imaginary foes, until some municipality built a new street or refurbished a run down one and ordered a load of storm drains. The kingdom dismantled, loaded on trucks and spread around town. We’d thought they were indestructible, but on a long enough time line, even pain and memories are little more than star dust. It’s only spirit that perseveres.
We weren’t supposed to mess around in the concrete company, as you’d expect, but we did. Lucky we never cracked our heads open, as mom would remind us every time we got caught out. I’ve since learned that kids only do what they’re not supposed to no matter how many trinkets and admonitions you give them. Kids these days. Kids those days. Rich kids. Poor kids. We all scribble the same pictures, and carry on indistinguishably carefree around tripping hazards and heavy machinery.
Easter always meant Dunkin Donuts, as it’s a morning holiday. We started at breakfast, and our family friend, John, would show up with a glazed dozen and smoke as many cigarettes before the ham came out of the oven around noon, smelling of tobacco and cloves. We’d keep an ashtray for him at my mom’s spot at the kitchen table, right next to the cat you couldn’t get out of the rocking chair. John would sit there and tell us stories he’d read in the National Geographics he found in the Hartford Public Library’s discard bin. Sometimes he’d bring us a few issues to keep for ourselves. He drank as many coffees as smokes, and he looked to us like either an artist or an overworked man. He came from a long line of the latter. Between made up tales of Africa and the Amazon, culled from the pages of the discarded magazines, he’d tell of real rich people’s houses on the west end of town where he’d installed wall to wall shag carpet and solid oak baseboards. He’d been doing the same since he got out of the army, longer ago that we could imagine. He never told army stories though. Some parts of the past you just don’t talk about, and we respected him.
Grampie would walk from the next street over where he and Uncle Bill lived. Until Grampie had his big heart attack, he’d have a Manhattan and a corncob pipe, every holiday dinner. He’d leave early to catch Archie Bunker or Wheel of Fortune back at the house, sitting in his Morris chair in front of his black and white Phillips in a room unchanged since his wife died twenty something years prior. I never met her. He never talked about her. But I understand now why he went back home on the holidays. He couldn’t let us see his tears.
In later years it was just Uncle Bill relaxing on the couch after a slice of apple pie from St. Rita’s Bakery, talking about old times, old cars, how well the snowblower did this past season, and what he’d do to tune it come fall. This is how I learned about motors and family and the shapes appreciation takes. Often a glazed donut. Or a chosen family circle.
Sometimes I think about the grown-ups sending us off to bed so they could talk and laugh and make new memories. We’d have to wait until next year to hear this year’s after-dinner conversations. Only the past was fair game because that’s how you hand down tradition. But how I longed to be part of the present. Now I am and I find myself still longing.
These days I think about Noodle and how we send him off to bed, just when the fun ramps up. I don’t suppose he likes it any more than I did. But I convince myself he needs his sleep or he won’t grow, and he drifts off and dreams while the rest of us tell tales. He’ll hear the tales next year, or maybe read them somewhere down the line.
These days Mom and I don’t talk about the past, and only rarely about the future. It’s the present that interests her, because that’s what she misses. We all do, and it seems we keep missing it. Our Easter telephone call takes this form. The past extends back to last week and the future to next, and that’s as much as we need.
“Oh, it’s you! Hello Bri!”
“Happy Easter from the southern hemisphere.”
“Now what day is it there?”
“Sunday, noon. You’re Saturday, right?”
“Yes, and tonight we’re staying in and getting ready for mass tomorrow and going out to dinner. We thought we’d go out this year because I’ve had a little cold – but don’t worry, I got my B-shot and I’m feeling so much better today, but tomorrow we’re going out anyway, and what are you doing for Easter dinner tonight then?”
“Ah, just our own thing. We did the egg hunt this morning and it started raining. We’ll just take it slow.”
The conversation continues like this with talk of setting up the camp site where they spend summers now. The Pond House, they call it. We visited last year and got to ooh and ahh over the new plants and garden gnomes and she detailed how they cleaned up the leaves and fallen branches from the ice storm. Look at that tree next to the porch. See the split part? Came down over winter.
And on it goes, trading idle stories subject to neither space nor time. In the phone call, our separation is an illusion. An inconvenience that I could change in the space of twenty hours and two airplane rides. This phone call bridges the time until the next visit. When and where, yet undetermined.
As I see it, this isn’t much different from when I attended university. When I moved to California. Today we’re nine thousand miles apart, but that’s no different from nine if you never take the time for one another. I know my mom laments the space between us, but I know now – now that I’m a parent too – even moving back wouldn’t be enough. Even if we rewound to Sunset Drive and shared a kitchen and a dozen donuts every Easter, it wouldn’t be enough. Even if she tucked me and Honey Bear into bed and kissed my forehead and his fuzzy dirty stuffed nose every night, it wouldn’t be enough. The trouble is, no matter how much either of us insists, I’m not her little boy anymore. I never really understood how that must feel until now. Now I hear a four year old voice squeak at me and ask for a glass of milk and a cuddle before bed. And right now, as I’m writing these words, I hear him half snoring, surrounded by his favourite pillows and blankets and his huggie. Dreaming of his bike. Dreaming of tomorrow. But goddamnit he’ll always be my little boy, won’t he?
One day Noodle will come home for the holidays, or maybe he’ll call, or maybe I’ll not have made it that far. It’s not my place to speculate on fate, or hope to change what doesn’t yet exist. All I know is that right now I’ve got the present with this little guy, one day after another, and I’m hanging on to them as best I can, here on these pages. No doubt the future is his, and one day he’ll be his own man, shaping his own story with his own chosen family circle. That’s how history works. But these moments – all that’s here and now. This is our time.
On Mother’s Day, Noodle will hug his momma and cuddle up against her under their favourite wool blanket and she’ll nuzzle her nose in his hair and tell him he still smells like a pencil, like her little boy will always smell. For Grandma, we’ll take some pictures and send a card, then we’ll eat a family dinner, maybe take a ham out of the oven around noon, smelling of tobacco and cloves. Maybe we’ll head across town and get a dozen donuts, for old time’s sake.
On Mother’s Day, I won’t hug my momma. But I’ll hug her grandson and she’ll know. She’ll feel it. Separation isn’t what is seems between a mother and a son. I believe that now. I know that now. I guess sometimes it takes all this separation, all this time and space, to realise we have been together all along. That’s the good choice she made.
When we talk today, the call might be long-distance, but we’re not apart. We never will be. My mom is right here in my sandy blond hair, going grey. She’s here in my fair freckled skin and my blue eyes and the way I dote on my family because she showed me how to turn out the same.
I don’t mean to come off as sentimental. This is simply how it sounds when a son realises, forty years on, he’s still his mother’s little boy.
Happy Mother’s Day Mom. There’s none of this without you.