Ralph Gardner Jr: Milestones You Don't See Coming

Sep 14, 2019

There are all those well-known milestones – births, marriages, deaths. But then there are the ones that come upon you suddenly, that you hadn’t given any thought to, that nobody warned you about.

I’m thinking, in particular, of the first call I made when I returned to the United States from a recent vacation abroad.

That call -- if I wasn’t traveling with my wife as I was on this trip – had always been to my mother. Just to let her know I was home safe and would visit her in the coming days.

But my mother passed away in February. She’s no longer taking my calls.

So who’s next on the list? My daughters, obviously.

And when I say next on my list there’s no lack of people I could call if I was in need of conversation. I’ve got a couple of brothers, lots of friends and acquaintances; there were even a few business-related calls I could have made.

But after flying economy these days for eight hours, not to mention the six-hour time difference between New York and Europe, and an hour-long line at customs, you’re in a modified catatonic state. Socializing over the phone isn’t that appealing.

You just want to let someone know you’re back. And here’s the thing: it needs to be someone special, someone you love and loves you back, and to whom your return is of material interest.

I’ve discovered that I most feel my mother’s absence when I’m en route somewhere or just arrived and the natural impulse, born of years of conditioning dating back to adolescence, is to check in with her.

It happened earlier this summer when we were on our way to Maine for a few days, traveling along the Mass Pike, the scenery tumbling by. My reflex was to call my mother just to let her know where we were going and that in case anything came up she could always reach me on my phone.

I mentioned this sense of loss to my wife, sitting in the passenger seat, and she said she’d felt the same way when her parents died. It’s the loss of love, the void created when someone whose connection to you feels almost physical is gone, who cared about your welfare as much or even more than they cared about their own.

Add to that that my mother lived her life on the telephone. She wasn’t particularly keen on exercise or leaving the house without make-up so much of her social life was conducted either from bed or sitting on her chaise longue. The telephone was her conduit to the outside world as well as a source of entertainment.

Indeed, I believe her mental decline, around the age of ninety, started when her sister and cousin were no longer around. Their frequent calls to her or hers to them gave context and contour to her day.

For much of my mother’s life she and my grandmother, only slightly less wedded to the phone than my mother was but no less so to her own chaise longue, lived in adjoining apartment buildings in New York City.

While they didn’t see each other every day they spoke several times a day on the phone. My father used to joke that during one of their typical marathon calls, often nothing more than gossip and trivia discussed, someone would go to the bathroom or deal with a household matter while the other held on. They never thought to hang up and call back.

Five or ten minutes later they’d return, ask what else was new – as if anything startling was going to happen while sitting on your chaise – and when the answer was “No,” they’d finally hang up.

My own calls with my mother tended to be somewhat briefer. Yet they also tread the minutiae of life – reporting for my mother’s benefit my own doings as well as those of my wife and daughters, with a smattering of gossip and current events thrown in.

I had an eerie experience on a couple of occasions when visiting my aunt Lily in Paris, the cousin my mother spoke with daily on the phone.

There was nothing I could tell Lily about my mother, or even my own kids, that she didn’t already know. The reason was obvious: she and my mother spoke literally for hours every day.

I called my daughter Lucy from the car on the way into the city from the airport. She was indeed happy to hear from me and even wanted to make a date for all of us to get together for dinner in the coming days.

But it wasn’t the same thing as checking in with my mother for several reasons; among them that my daughter has a full-blown, energetic life. She also happened to be at work.

I don’t recall my mother, ever, not having time to talk on the phone at length.

That’s the milestone I was talking about: when your first call back from vacation is no longer to your parents but to your children. They’re really happy to hear from you but really need to get back to work.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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