“Hi mom, it’s me. Steve.” My roommate would start every call home this way. I wonder what today’s student would make of the idea of sharing a phone? Of having a phone that was physically attached to the wall by a cord of some lunatic length and a receiver that was itself connected to the base by another coil, equally long? What would today’s student make of the ritual of producing your room’s answering machine message?
I howled internally whenever my roommate would reintroduce himself to his mother. I wasn’t eavesdropping on him. None of us really wanted to listen to each other’s conversations with our parents or our girlfriends from high school, but we were four young men living in one stinking room. I think it’s a lounge now. Now that human rights legislation advanced far enough to force the University’s leadership to recognize that packing four sweating young males into a single room is nothing you should do to veal, much less boys from New Jersey. Wasn’t that the ticket, though? Thousands of students from around the world and we all had roommates from two exits up or down the Parkway.
“It’s me. Steve.” We all called home regularly. My father, a psychologist, didn’t work Wednesdays, so Wednesday and Sunday were my days to call home. I would talk to my mother first, then my dad. My mother would brief me on the family, on my sister, and then dispense some advice on some issue she identified between calls. “You’re making your bed, aren’t you? That’s the best way to start your day, you know. It makes you feel organized.” My father would then get on the line and then they would talk to each other. I could listen to them bicker for minutes. “Hanne, what are you doing? He makes his bed. He doesn’t. What does it matter?” “It. Matters! What if someone comes into that room of theirs? Do you think the, what is he called? The priest? Do you think he wants to see some dirty room? It’s disgraceful, if you ask me. How you keep yourself says a lot about you as a person. It says a lot about your parents, too.”
When I missed a designated day to call home, there’d be hell to pay. Silent, seething, Scandinavian hell to pay. “Hello?” “Hi, mom.” My mother was from Denmark. “Oh, it’s nice to hear your voice. When you didn’t call on Sunday, we thought maybe something happened.” Now, mind you, even back in 1990, telephones worked both ways. They could have called me as easily as I could have called them, but they almost never did. To this day, in this world of smartphones practically glued to our hands, my parents almost never call. But when they do, and it’s my mother that does, if they do, it’s always about something so picayune you can’t believe they’re wasting the electrons. “Listen, we didn’t hear from you on Sunday and I know that you’re so busy, but I’m calling you from Shop Rite. Do you remember what kind of cranberries you used for the cranberry mold at Thanksgiving last year?”
“It’s me. Steve.” I never got to hear the question, or the pause, that prompted my roommate to say his own name. Steve did have an older brother, so maybe there was some voice-confusion going on. Maybe he was being considerate to an elderly mother. I was always amazed at how old some of my classmates’ parents were. My parents, in 1990, were just about the age I am today. Some of the other parents, though?
They were Catholic parents, with dozens of children who themselves were older than my parents. You’d see these bright, alive middle-aged couples walking around the dorm at the start of the year or at football games and you’d stop and say, “Hello Mr and Mrs Smith.” And your friend, sheepishly, would go, “actually, these aren’t my parents. This is my brother Alan and his wife, Jennifer. My parents are over there,” and they would point at a white-haired couple collapsed on a bench on the quad, their withering hands poking from under the sleeves of their matching Members Only jackets.
Those parents, those mothers, have to be gone by now. I wonder if Steve’s mother is gone. I remember what another of my roommate’s fathers said to my own father at a funeral. They were burying his father, who lived to some ripe old age, and he said to my dad, “Well, Bill, it looks like you and I are on the merry-go-round now.” He meant that they were up to bat. Their parents’ days had gone. They were now the old people on the bench on the quad.
We don’t have many Mother’s Days left. At least, I don’t. My mother’s parents died in 2001, within a month of each other, but not in that adorable, romantic way in which some old couples pass away in neat sequence or practically together. My grandfather died suddenly and my grandmother, who, if we’re being honest, needed a break from him and didn’t want to die just yet, got done in by the bone and blood cancer she had been fighting for some time. Their daughter, my mother, is no longer a spring chicken.
I think back to those dark Sunday nights, waiting for my turn on the phone. When Steve was done, he would hand the receiver and the base to me from his top bunk. I would dial. Someone was eating zachos in the hallway. The phone would ring. My mother’s voice. I was home again.