I was making dinner when I heard the familiar ding of my phone. It was a text from my sons — our oldest lives 1,400 miles away and graduated from college a year ago. Our youngest is equally as far away but in the opposite direction and a college senior. It’s often challenging to see one another, but such is our new reality.
They wrote something about my upcoming birthday, about wanting to coordinate a joint phone call. Can we Facetime? I asked. No, they schooled me (in a kind way), you can only do this with one person at a time. Someone mentioned Skype but nobody remembered passwords, so we decided to rough it and have an old-fashioned phone call later that week.
Earlier that day, while out doing errands with my husband, he pointed to a bank parking lot and said, “Look.” We’d just bought some groceries, and stopped at a Starbucks for drinks that we could have easily made at home (but rarely do now because without kids at home we’ve gotten a tad lazy). I followed the tip of his finger to a suburban sidewalk where I saw a mama duck with a half dozen of her babies trailing dutifully behind. “I wonder where they’re headed?” I said. “Pull into the lot, let’s watch.”
We sat there for a while as they made their way from the pavement toward a grassy field. At one point a few of the baby ducks lagged behind, distracted by something in their path. Loud quacking ensued, a scolding perhaps from mama, until they fell back into formation, and all of them continued on their way.
I imagined the babies with tiny backpacks on, heading home from duck school, mom toting a giant purse filled with emergency provisions, loose change, and crumpled to-do lists — dinner and homework foremost on her mind.
I wanted to tell the mama duck that even though she’s over-the-top busy now and her ducklings are always in tow, the day will come when one of her babies will fly away, and then the others will follow. Perhaps she knew this already.
Back at the house I put my groceries away, my sneakers on, and went out for a walk. It had been too long since my last outdoor trek, having recently opted instead for walks of the indoor variety. I’d missed them for many reasons, but mostly because they reminded me of the importance of moving forward, even when you don’t feel like it.
The grass looked inviting, smoother to walk on and kinder on the feet no doubt, but I avoid it at all costs here in Texas — between chiggers and ants, it can be a landmine. I once stepped only inches from an ant’s nest that looked like Sand Mountain in Nevada. Just the thought of it makes me itch. I headed towards our neighborhood park. Children were walking with their parents and grandparents; dogs were walking ahead of their owners, tugging at their leashes. A few women ran by, talking animatedly. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an elderly woman sitting on a bench, and resisted the urge to go and sit next to her and ask about her life and what led her here to this bench on this particular day. And who she was talking to on her phone. She could have been my Nana — the way she dressed, the way she sat with her ankles crossed. Except Nana would never have carried a cell. She was all about the face-to-face conversation. Plus, she liked to hold my hand while we talked.
I grew up hearing stories about my maternal grandparents, both immigrants from Austria, and how they were the first to own a house, a small one in Queens, New York. And how most of the extended family, also immigrants, gathered there on weekends and holidays. They would bring out folding card tables and kitchen chairs and talk and play games until the sun went down. Telephones were a luxury and rarely, ever used.
Suddenly a man on a bike rushed past me. “On your right,” he said, almost knocking me over. I leapt over to the safety of the grass, then just as quickly back to the path.
Two boys chased a ball in front of me. They reminded me of my sons. The wildness of their curls. The way they laughed without a trace of self-consciousness. I thought about how smart and brave and interesting my boys have grown up to be. I pulled out my phone to call — a spur-of-the-moment sort of thing. Then remembered it was Saturday. We have an agreement of sorts about talking during the weekend. It’s when they’re generally with friends, and a call from your mom can make for some seriously awkward conversations.
To my left I spotted a tree, a wonderfully green and windswept tree. I forgot about the ants and the chiggers and found myself stepping off the path, walking across the open field straight toward it.
On my birthday the kids called as planned. We were all conferenced in. My husband and I joined by speaker phone at the kitchen table. We took turns sharing news. At first the big stuff, then the lesser — I listened for the nuances. It’s harder when you can’t see their expressions, but you can imagine.
At times my sons spoke to one another and we just listened. There was some debate about politics, movies, and then of our aging family dog. I learned of a few events that had taken place with my youngest that made my heart skip a few beats. I’m sure there are plenty more of these types of stories, but I’m better off not knowing all of them. I like to sleep at night and I’ve only just recently learned how to get a few hours in a row. Colleges today text you when there are major events of the unfortunate kind and most of these events seem to happen at night. I finally opted out of the service. News tends to make its way around in a more organic way. Just as it did on my nearly two-hour birthday call.
Over the years I’ve learned to rethink my idea of what keeps a family connected. It’s not always what I expected it to be, but it’s the way it is. Truthfully, I’ve spent plenty of time in the physical presence of others and not felt the slightest connection, family included. Yet I can end a phone call and feel a profound bond. It’s about the effort we make to reach out and be inclusive, to share the events that shape our lives. These are the building blocks of lasting relationships. And they do add up. Just like cell phone minutes.
In the absence of wings, a good family phone plan is essential.
Melissa writes for newspapers and magazine is the author of From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life