Author’s mom calling from 2019
Emily Gordon

I once had a GoogleCalendar reminder to contact my mother every Sunday. I often didn’t. She wasn’t in the habit of calling me — some combination of not wanting to intrude and, I think, a holdover from the days when calling long-distance was expensive. The cell phone I got her, with its many free minutes, didn’t ever seem to make an impression, and was rarely charged. Her preference was to communicate on her terms and use landlines. Her cell phone would occasionally call me, but it was only her notifying me of the downfall of her internet or landline.

Whenever I called her, though, she was pleased to hear from me, and we’d have an upbeat, rich, funny conversation filled with politics, books and magazines. Sometimes she updated me on her thoughtful and/or eccentric neighbors in the Vermont township where she’d moved after my sister Kate and I left our home in Madison, Wisconsin. I tried not to interrupt her — one of my terrible habits — and she never interrupted me. Without fillers and parenthetical digressions, she spoke with a clear, intelligent voice.

She didn’t ask personal questions, and never asked why I didn’t call or visit more. I was the one who always foisted myself on her, although once I arrived, she was glad to see me and put me to work pulling up wild rosebushes or picking up — and counting! — hundreds of black walnuts from under the tree in her small, tidy front yard.

The author (right) and her mom at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 2010.
Right: The author and her mom, at Brooklyn Botanic Garden 2010.
Kate Gordon

Even if I got lost on the way up to Vermont (ending up on a long, slow country road after getting gas in a little town with no GPS service, say) and was hours later than I’d planned, she didn’t hold it against me. I can’t remember her bringing up any of my unbecoming traits or life experiences, unless it was as a shared joke, an affectionate and gentle riff.

As the firewood stove heated my back, it was dark and we would be reading together until the next day. With a quick thought or a photograph from my cell phone, I would interrupt her reading. I was a pleasure to be with her, and she loved to let me go to get back to her perfectly ordered life.

Her email skills were exceptional, and she was also a good letter-writer. She always replied to my emails with funny, detailed replies. Last email that she sent was a response to my message on the recent death of a friend’s son. It was a short reply, but it wasn’t hard for me not to answer, perhaps because of how sad the topic was and the unusually detailed note.

When she was found dead of unknown causes (probably heart-related) last February, I hadn’t called her in three weeks, I think. It’s funny what a laugh line “call your mother” is. But do — if you have one, and want to be in touch with her, call her. You might even call her once per week. Especially if you’re a procrastinator like me, and prefer to call with really good news or some accomplishment or brilliant observation, or to uncover a great story or memory. Call to reach out. Maybe your dad is the right person to call. You might even reach out to your sister. Or a dear friend who’s like a dad or a sister.

The author and her mom circa 1972
Around 1972, the author and her mother.
Thomas Montgomery

Today, I was out in the woods and felt the urge to call my friend. That opportunity, that number on my phone, that spur-of the-moment catch up, I will miss. We weren’t the kind of mother and daughter who were “best friends” and shared everything. Not at all. We were good friends and we had a lot of fun talking on the phone. (Most importantly, she was a delight to talk with. When it came to anything related to her health — she was a smoker and drinker despite, or perhaps because of, surviving pancreatic cancer — or money, she could be quite snippy and short.) What a strange thing to be able to loose this small but significant hour (or even the chance of an hour) on a Sunday!

In this second year of her absence, the holidays are approaching and I find myself among the many grievers wondering what makes us feel so lost. Winter memories begin in childhood and then fade abruptly or shockingly at some point. Maybe we want to know more about a photo from the past, hear who’s visiting the birdfeeder, compare notes about snowstorms or family dramas. Good stories are as varied and important as the bad. They all contribute to who we are. There’s something sacred about the simplest news, tossed off in a quick call on a walk to somewhere else.

The author's mom on her porch in Barton, Vermont
Author’s mother on her front porch, Barton Vermont
Emily Gordon

There is a New Yorker cartoon (my mother was the most loyal and complete reader of the magazine ever — no contest) that I’m sure she found hilarious, and in no way because of my sister or me. In it, an old woman with a cane looks into her empty mailbox and kvetches, “Sacrebleu! Again with the nothingness, and on my birthday, yet!” The caption: “The letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to his mother.”

Seriously, people: I loved snail mail. My mother was just as fond of it as Madame Sartre. It might be a good idea to take Sunday off in order to send a letter to your mom. You only need one stamp and two minutes to create a postcard. It’s fun to buy one, write a sentence or two, and drop it in the mailbox. She might even put it on her refrigerator. There is no greater honour than that.

Emily Gordon, among others, has contributed to Air Mail Weekly and The Common Reader. Her poems have appeared in magazines including The Baffler and the Women’s Review of Books. She currently resides in New Haven (Connecticut).

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