After a country supper in the days of my growing up, Mama would often stand up from the table and say, “Ronda, you clean up the kitchen. I need to call Idell and see how she’s doin.”
There was not a telephone by any bed in our house. We had a table phone in the living room and two wall phones: one in Mama’s sewing room (sister’s old bedroom) and one in the kitchen.
The cord to the rotary dial beige phone stretched out to about 12 feet long. Mama didn’t even mind that it dangled into a pool on the red and white kitchen tile. When it bothered her or she needed to sweep, she picked it up and wrapped it several times around the phone. It looked nice, but the first time you had to answer the phone in such a state, you had a tangled mess. “Bessie,” Mama would say. “Hold on a minute. I got the cord tied in knots. Give me a minute.” Then Mama would pull the phone into the bedroom, lie down on the bed and talk for hours, twirling the long cord through her fingers.
In the family I grew up in, I was taught early the importance of a phone call or visit to those who were lonely or sad. Until I was 7, we had a party line. Now that was a treat. For me but not my elementary teacher who had a line with us.
When I was 5, the teacher said, “Ronda, hang up the phone. This is a private conversation.” I didn’t know that. I thought she could listen to us and we could listen to her.
“Mama,” I asked as she fried okrie, “Mrs. Coltrain said I wasn’t to listen to her conversations.”
“She’s right. That’s rude. We share. When you hear her voice, put down the phone.”
I sighed. I sure liked to hear how her husband thought more of his new bull than of her. But I did stop.
Daddy made a practice of calling and checking on widow women, those who grieved and those who were sick.
There was a younger woman called May Ann. She had two children about 6 and 8 years old. Her father was a close friend of Daddy’s. So, Daddy, dedicated to being the kind of preacher man that the Good Book expects, would call weekly. Her husband was likeable, but from Friday at 5 until 6 a.m. on Monday, he drank away a week’s pay. May Ann took in cooking, sewing and child keeping, whatever it took to feed her babies.
Daddy and May Ann enjoyed talking about people they knew in common and complexities of the Bible. But Daddy’s call was always for one purpose, and that was to end the call with this: “Well, what can I do for you? Got enough for light bill? Need groceries?”
I doubt she took a cent but perhaps she did and it was kept secret but paid back. Or maybe not. When Daddy died, she cried, whispering, “That’s the best man I ever knowed. I don’t know how ever I’d ever raised my children without him. Every time he called, he prayed with me.”
To this day, I believe in the power of a call. Not a text or email, mind you. A call where the listener can feel warmth of voice and personal connection. I make those kind of calls regularly. Especially to widow women.
When I was 9, the local Bell Company ran a TV ad that featured Alabama coach and icon Bear Bryant. He was a tough, no-nonsense man with a handsome craggy face and a beautiful Southern voice.
The commercial ended with the gruff voice commanding, “Don’t forget to call your mama today.” A swallow. “I sure wish I could call mine.”
I teared up always. That’s when I first understood the emotional power of a phone call.