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Judith Timson

The phone cord that binds: I called my mother every day Add to ...

For 30 years, I've called my mother every day.

I started calling her in my mid-20s -- after she gently suggested she didn't hear from me enough. I was single, selfish and absorbed in my career at the time.

But because she so seldom asked anything of me, I responded. And gradually our calls became an unbreakable routine between 8:30 and 9 in the morning.

My mother almost never called me, because, she said, that would be "interrupting your busy life." So, as a newlywed, I called her. As a working mother overwhelmed by frantic mornings getting young kids off to school, I called her. As a writer anxious to get to my home office -- at the same time emptying the dishwasher so vehemently that she occasionally made a tart inquiry about all the banging -- I called her. And as an empty nester after the children grew up and left for university, I called her.

We would talk about her day and mine, about her grandchildren (no news about them was too small to be of interest) and about politics. Although she lived here for 60 years, my mother was a proud American, albeit one so ticked off with the current administration that George W. Bush was frequent phone fodder. As were all major news events. In fact, my mom and I were on the phone with each other on Sept, 11, 2001, when reports first broke that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

We also discussed smaller disruptions closer to home. I'd tell her what temperature the mood-o-meter was hovering at in our household -- who was happy, who was grumpy, who had school or work problems, whether a marital spat (a tamely reported version of it, mind you) had clouded my morning.

She took it all in stride. The very opposite of a mother-in-law joke, she deftly took my husband's side in any domestic flare-up. Which of course slavishly bonded him to her for life. And me to him. Clever woman.

My mother loved her job as registrar at a scholarship foundation. This helped her, I suppose, be unswervingly supportive of my life as a modern working woman. On the phone, she would marvel, "I don't know how you girls do it!" -- her enthusiasm such that friends would jokingly ask me if I would rent her out.

We saw my mother regularly in our household -- every Friday night. At dinners, she was everyone's property, graciously surfing the emotional waves that break the surface of many a family meal. Although when she was there, we all tried a little harder and laughed a little more.

But our morning phone call was different: more intimate, more informative, more generous. Over the phone, she was mine and I was hers. I heard about her table mates at her retirement residence, about her surviving friends, about what she thought of old age (not much, frankly). She heard about my work -- and was my cheering section to the point of delusion. If I wearily told her my editors had demanded a rewrite, her standard reply was: "Oh, they didn't!"

Mind you, my mother -- who had probably overlooked obvious incompatibilities to marry my newsman father because she found him fascinating -- still revered the news business years after both their divorce and his death.

Which made our phone conversations even more entertaining, although occasionally hard on my ego. On a low self-esteem morning, did I really need to hear, word for word, what another clever columnist had written? Apparently I did.

Friday, Jan. 12, was the first morning I didn't get to call my mother. A gloriously vibrant 90-year-old -- one we expected would be doing her crossword puzzles and her own income taxes for a few years to come -- she died suddenly of heart failure very early that day. Along with my shock and sorrow came the realization that our daily phone calls were forever ended.

But how do you stop the habit of a lifetime? The next morning and in the days following, I started toward the telephone many times. When I realized what I was doing, I stopped, but it was as wrenching as a physical withdrawal. I felt constantly that there was something I needed to do.

After operating on the assumption that nothing major in my life had really happened until my mother knew about it, I could not quite grasp that I couldn't call and tell her what a fabulous standing-room-only funeral we had had for her. (Jazz piano, Mom. And you wouldn't believe who came.)

In fact, on the second day after her funeral, I felt such an overwhelming longing to hear her voice again that I called her number anyways -- just to hear her on the answering machine. It made me smile not only because of her ridiculously charming New England accent, but because I realized then that my mom had never really sounded old.

In the days since she died, I've had kind offers from friends and family to be on hand between 8:30 and 9 a.m. for a phone call to help with my withdrawal, or to start a new routine.

But I don't know about that. My mother was my advocate, my confidante, someone who brought out the best in me and in everyone she knew. She was also just cracking good company. So I cannot imagine -- or even wish -- that any other phone call would immediately replace ours.

Maybe I'll meditate instead, or write in a journal to fill that special time. I don't want to let it slip away though. I want to make a commitment to it. Of course, that morning phone call was already a commitment for me. A commitment to loving my mother and being a reliable part of her life. A commitment to knowing her deeply, to sharing the big and small aspects of our lives and to understanding, especially as she got older, how her life was changing.

Over the years, I have received a lot of undue credit for this commitment. Friends would ask admiringly how I found the time. Or: "What do you talk about with her?" They would even say guiltily, "I'm gonna call my mom tomorrow."

What they didn't realize was just how easy she made it.

One night last fall, I took her out to dinner at her local Swiss Chalet. We ordered glasses of wine and talked and talked -- about the kids, about the American elections, about her life past and present. She was very animated, her hands waving in the air. She thanked me when I dropped her off.

And when I called her as usual the next morning? She said: "I went to bed last night completely happy."

No wonder I kept calling.

jtimson@globeandmail.com

 

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