My daughter answered the phone. Her voice went up an octave, and her face forced a smile, as if the caller could see her and she needed to convey welcome. Translation? She had no idea who she was talking with. But, a well-trained clergy kid who can make small talk with the best of them, she chatted with whomever was calling her grandmother. I watched from Mom’s kitchen, trying to guess the caller’s identity while Mom slept in the living room, unawakened by the ringing phone.
Then I heard the name: Norma! I motioned eagerly for the phone. Norma and Mom met in fall of 1953, freshman year at UCLA. Fast friends who’ve lived across the country from one another since 1959, they have the kind of friendship in which they pick up the easy conversation where it left off at the last visit, usually a year or more prior. I recall annual holiday cards, with family updates, arriving with sunny, clearly California images of Norma, Gene and their children. And, for some reason I always noted just how petite and Sandy-Duncan-esque Norma was – compared to her friend Betty who seemed gargantuan at 5’6”. Somehow that mattered in the equation.
When I was a wide-eyed kid looking at my parents’ elegant black and white wedding photos, Mom would recount that she and Dad opted for a tiny wedding – 30 people – which precluded most of their friends – except Norma. As lore would have it, she snuck Norma in as if beloved contraband among the relatives. And that’s pretty much all I knew, until yesterday.
I took the phone. After pleasantries Norma explained that her children were making a book with the answers to questions that she and her husband Gene received each week. She’d been thinking about Mom because the Thanksgiving-week question was: Who would you like to thank?
Her answer? Easy – Betty (Mom). Why? The first week of freshman year, Norma arrived on campus knowing no one. She met Betty, a Beverly Hills High School graduate who introduced her to her friends. This, Norma, explained, made all of the difference for her college experience. And, 68 years later, she called to thank Mom for that kindness
Norma asked me to repeat her gratitude to Mom. I promised tearfully with some doubt. Could I do this justice? And could Mom take it in? My beautiful mother remembers her many friends, but illness has wrested from her focus, memory and her warm, deft conversation skill. And, news that would have garnered emotional response often falls to the floor with a thud. We long for those conversations about everything from old friends, classical music and baking suggestions to travels, exhibits, and parenting counsel. Sometimes I momentarily forget the supportive warmth and calm of the person whom I’ve dubbed Kindergarten teacher by profession and in life. Normalcy? Her grandchildren struggle to extract those memories.
When Mom awoke, I kneeled in front of her recliner and reported that Norma called. Her smile was instantaneous – like that of a happy teenager seeing her best friend. Then I took a chance that it was a good moment, and told her about the call. As I hit the punchline about Norma’s gratitude, Mom’s face scrunched up in an unfamiliar expression. Suddenly our eyes were transfixed on one another. And I saw something I’ve never seen: I saw my mother cry. Now it’s my turn to call Norma with gratitude.