Cellular Apologies (bonus daily writing prompt #2)

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Most mornings, I get up early, make a cup of coffee, and write. That didn’t happen today for a variety of reasons, and I feel rather strange writing in the afternoon. This is the time I’m usually in between teaching classes. It’s Friday now, and my college doesn’t have classes on Friday. I have the coffee and laptop, so I might as well tackle the last prompt from the writing boot camp. I’ve liked the bonus prompts more than many of the others.

I have a feeling I’m going to stay pretty far away from this one.

Cellular Apologies – A stranger asks to borrow your cell phone. You agree. She turns away and talks on it for a moment, then faces you once more. “I’m sorry,” she says, eyes red. “I’m so sorry.” Then, she runs away.

My mother stopped using the phone when she was two days shy of her thirteenth birthday. Her family had just gotten a phone, and she was both nervous and excited about the device. How could someone’s voice travel through wires? she wondered. Could it be dangerous? 

They’d taken better to indoor plumbing a few months ago. Her father had decided that the house needed some improvements and so installed a sink and a toilet, but he’d been against the phone. Apparently, my grandmother and more wore my grandfather down and he finally gave in.

On Wednesday, June 13, 1954, the family phone sprang to life with its distinct two short and one long ring, letting them know that the call was specifically for them. Not that it mattered; anyone could pick up another phone and listen in. My grandmother was out in the backyard hanging wash to dry, and my mother ran to the phone but hesitated before picking it up.

“I knew something was wrong before I lay my hand on it,” she tells me these many years later. “I called for Mama, but she didn’t hear me. It kept ringing, and I knew I had to pick it up.”

Her eyes grow a little hazy as she recalls the rest: “I was right. The call was from a man saying that Daddy had been hit by a truck and was dead. That’s what he said, plain as day. Not ‘May I please speak to your mother?’ or ‘I have some bad news.’ When the man said that, I dropped the phone and screamed. That brought Mama in quick, and….”

My mother trails off and takes a moment to collect herself. “After that, I never answered the phone. I even took a hammer to it once, but Mama stopped me and said we couldn’t afford a new one. I didn’t care if we ever got another one, but I always did what Mama said to do. I just stayed away from the thing.”

My mother has held to her word. When I call, my dad always answers the phone and relays my mother’s good wishes. Dad and I say sometimes (always when Mom’s not around) that we’ll get her a cell phone and teach her how to text.

But I know we never will. A cell phone, smart or otherwise, is still a phone and is essentially the same harbinger of death that affected my mother so deeply.On the positive side of things, my mother writes exquisite letters and taught me to do the same. These days, she’s the only person I correspond to via letter, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Note: This isn’t a true story, but it contains elements of truth (I prefer Tim O’Brien’s view of truth, anyway: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth”). For the curious, the events of the father’s death and the daughter’s reaction to it happened to my college English department head’s mother, who received the news of a death via the phone. I can’t recall who died, but the woman vowed to never use a phone again. And, according to Dr. Foster, she never did.

My own grandmother also came to my mind and the story of her own father’s untimely passing. My great-grandfather was struck my a street car in Birmingham in the 1920s and suffered terrible, though not initially life-threatening, injuries. When he was finally released from the hospital, he went home to continue his recovery and died from a brain hemorrhage during the night. My grandmother discovered him dead the next morning.

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