To say that there are complications in communicating between the different generations in our world is an understatement, at least as far as I am concerned. Conversations, even between those of the same age group can come out muddled, frazzled, frantic, and fractured. Some days it appears we have all been transferred back in time to the Biblical era of the tower of Babel. For those of you who have never heard of it; the legend goes that during a period in ancient history, the men of the world came together to construct a tower that would reach to the heavens. During their colossal quest at space exploration and theological questioning, God took a trip down to our planet to check up on His earthly children and see what they were up to. I think it was like when a parent is busy doing housework, and then realizes with a sinking feeling that the kids have been too quiet for too long for their own good. Anyway, when God came down and saw what those over-achievers were up to, He said “So, this is what happens when humans develop good communication skills – those little rascals – let’s confuse their languages so that they can never work effectively together again.” He then scattered our languages and twisted everyone’s’ tongues, so that now-a-days, even potholes and bridges are a challenge for us to collaborate on and repair. From that day on the Babel builders all spoke in different tongues and no one could communicate, so no more work could be done on the proposed project. Hmm, this story sounds strangely like the last family picnic I attended.
Let us now turn to the technology of our time and consider the degree of difficulty in answering a phone. I concur that telephones have changed a great deal over the last twenty-five years, but from what I read in the Miss Manners and Dear Abby columns, telephone etiquette hadn’t gone completely out of style. Mannerisms, politeness, and common courtesy should all still be in effect, right? Unless you are some sort of spy or foreign diplomat intent on keeping your military secrets from slipping into the wrong hands; and I know that could never be the case in my family, or can it?
I have one sister who goes completely incognito when she is out in public and takes the time to answer her cell phone. What follows is a brief example of how our conversations take place when I call her.
Me- “Hey girl! What’s going on?”
Charlene- “Shh!!” (Followed in a fierce whispered voice) “Who is this?”
Me- (now also whispering) “It’s me, L. J. – where are you?”
Charlene – “Shhh, quiet! (still whispering) I’m in Walmart, I don’t want anyone to hear me!”
Me – (also still whispering) “Why? Are you in a hostage situation?”
Charlene – (Hushed tones) Hush! Listen! I can’t talk right now cause I’m in the store and somebody might hear us talking.”
Hear us talking about what? Hear our conversations about any upcoming Memorial Day picnics or any surprise baby showers that our family has planned? Hey, she could be right and I could be wrong; after all isn’t this how the Nazis got their start – whispering to each other behind closed doors about baby showers and national holidays? You know that the history books are commonly considered to be vague, so we can never be sure of all that actually took place, and it helps with our understanding if we fill in the blanks based on our own experiences and imagination. But, history aside, let’s get back to the phone conversation at hand.
Me – (still whispering) “Charlene – what, what did you say? I can’t hear you!”
Charlene – (angry whispering) “Shhhh!!! I’ll call you back when I get home – bye!”
Me- (hushed, quietly) “Ok, Ok, – good bye.”
I hang up quickly and then think – wait a minute– did she say she would call me back when she got home or that she is currently on her way to Rome? I can never be quite sure until I get the return call, because when this sister whispers, even in a face to face setting, she does it so quickly and quietly that I can never catch all that she is saying.
The only thing more perplexing than trying to talk to my sister on the phone while she is at Walmart is attempting to find out the exact location of my mother.
When we were growing up in my parents’ home, the house that we lived in had been built on the same track of land as my maternal grandparents, about one football field’s length from their back door. My siblings and I were close enough in age to be a source of comfort and entertainment for each other if we ever desired it, but unfortunately for my mother, we rarely did. Instead we played many a sporting games of trying to best each other at various physical challenges that involved baseball bats, roller skates, large cardboard boxes, and plenty of Silly String and Crazy Foam. To her credit, my mother could never have been accused of being a helicopter parent. She did not hover over us while we did our homework, nor did she stand in our way while we tried conquering new things. She refused to referee during our sibling rivalry wars, no matter who was winning or what the odds. We grew up in an independent, figure it out for yourself, whoever is strongest will survive type of environment. I can imagine that the four of us were a lot to have to handle, and whenever she needed a break from her parental duties, she would just saunter over to grandma’s house, without bothering to tell any of us kids where she was going. I can remember many a times as a young child being seized by panic when I went looking for my mother and discovered she was nowhere to be found.
“She’s at Grandma’s house” always came the nonchalant replies of my older siblings.
Traumatic as those times were, as I grew older, I came to realize that I was capable enough of handling many an issue all by myself, and that whenever I truly needed my mother, she would always be there for me; always, usually, sometimes, ok, ok, now and then, but I first I had to figure out where she was.
Upon reaching that wonderful age of fifty, it becomes crystal clear to me that the age old adage – the more things change, the more they stay the same – is still stoically in effect.
One recent day, as I was driving down the road near my home in town, I spotted a sign along the side of a road that screamed “FREE insulation panels!”
Now anything with the letters F-R-E-E on it is going to make my head turn, but the word that beacons into my brain is “insulation”. It just so happened that my daughter, grandchildren and I have recently moved into an older home in the downtown area of our borough. This charming historic home has a back sun room where the washer and dryer are hooked up, but the fact that the laundry area does not have any heat or winterizing has given me cause for some concern. Winters have been quite frigid in the south central part of Pennsylvania these past few years, and I realize that if we don’t find a way to keep that back room warm this year, we may be doing mountains of laundry at a nearby laundromat – not anything I aspire to at this point in my life. I do a quick U-turn up the road and head back to check out the wares. I pull into a large parking lot of an industrial facility and at the end of the lot sits several large piles of insulation in the form of storm doors. These storm doors have been cut into piles of easy to handle rectangles and squares, but they are covered in the heavy metal fiberglass of their construction. I lift one up, even with their smaller sizes, these things are heavy and large. There is no way they will fit into my Honda. If only I had a truck or an SUV.
I start dialing my mother’s cell phone. Daddy has a truck and Mother has a small, but reliable crossover SUV. Ring, ring, ring – I wait for her to answer – finally she picks up her phone.
“Hey Mother!” I say warmly, and not wanting to trespass on her time by forcing her to drive out of her way to look at my bargain find, I ask the next logical question I can think of – “where are you?”
Her answer comes back a little on the vague side. “Well, I am not at home.”
This is good news to me because it means she is already on the road and might already be somewhere nearby. “Ok, great.” I say “where are you right now?”
Her next answer is even more reflective. “Well, if you go by the house – I won’t be there.”
I am still optimistically anticipating co-operation at this point. “Ok, terrific, Mom… So, uh where are you that has taken you away from the house?”
She takes a frustrated sigh “L. J, I just want you to know that if you’re going home to visit, there won’t be anybody there.”
Ok, wait a minute, let’s recap here. Are we talking in Morse code? Did I just suddenly just start speaking in Japanese and I am not aware of it, and my mother is unable to translate? I start to become a little alarmed by her warning signs – is Mom having a stroke or giving me a hint that Alzheimer’s runs in our family? I know I haven’t had my usual levels of hot tea or caffeine this morning, but I don’t think my brain can possibly be this sluggish at such a young age. I take a deep breath and begin again to try to solve this mystery.
I start the conversation over. “So…uh, Mom, you are not at home – does this mean that you are on the road somewhere?”
“Yes, but not anywhere near home.”
“Ok, I think we have established that much at this point. Can you look at your GPS and tell me what location you are at?”
“I don’t have the GPS turned on and if I did, it would say that I am not anywhere near the house.”
“Right, OK, … Hmmm Mom, are you at least in the state of Pennsylvania?”
“Why? Are you planning on coming to the house to visit? Because if you are – I’m not there.”
It now occurs to me that my mother is being purposefully evasive – but why? Is our family a bunch of government spies, and I am the only one in our genetic pool who wasn’t enrolled in the program? Did Mom secretly retire into the Soviet Society for Senior Citizens? The one thing I do know about Russia is that it isn’t anywhere near here and I can’t even see it from my own backyard. And in reality, I can’t see how our government would ever trust us with any CIA work. I mean, come on – the combined ages of my mother and I equal over one hundred and twenty years- there is no possible way, even with Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren on our team, that the two of us could be any sort of danger to any kind of society, no matter how unsuspecting it might be.
At this point, I am totally confused. I have tried to be blunt with my mother, but she is not taking the bait, and is closed mouth about this suddenly salacious subject.
Meanwhile all I can think is that I wish I had bought a truck instead of a Honda. Also, now thanks to my lack of caffeine and my mother’s cross talk I am getting a terrific headache.
After several more exasperating minutes on the phone, true to her benevolent nature, although she never gave away her coordinates, she did agree to come and help me with the panels. When she finally arrived, we loaded several panels into the back of her crossover SUV and took them to my home, where they sat in the wash room all winter and weren’t even put into place until the first warm days of the following year. I consider procrastination to be among my most endearing traits.
In closing this story, I just want to remind everyone that my mother truly does have a genuine heart of gold, and she will and often does go out of her way to help anyone in need. I can also tell you that she wasn’t exactly thrilled to learn that I chose to include this story about her in my blog, but hey, I like to look at the bright side of things. If any of her adoring family and friends want to discuss this chapter with her, they have to find her first.
Story and photography by L. J. Priest. All rights reserved.