(Photo: Courtesy Lauren Oster)
The first few calls I made to my mother for TueNight’s 30-Day Challenge covered familiar territory: My youngest sister was visiting with her husband, so I filled Mom in on our adventures around New York City. She described the holiday meals she’d prepared back in California. We expressed reluctance to get rid of our respective Christmas trees.
But after a week or so, I started to learn things about my family that I never before knew. On one occasion, for example, our conversation turned to catnapping. “Oh yeah, Grandpa loved James Herriot,” my mom told me, speaking of the publicity-shy veterinarian whose heartwarming stories of his country practice in Yorkshire sold millions of books in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “He loved James Herriot so much that when he and Grandma went to Cambridge on one of their trips, he grabbed a cat from outside their hotel and went to see him posing as a client.”
The Challenge was undertaken with Mom’s knowledge: I didn’t want her to think I was suddenly in constant contact because, say, a doctor had told me I had a year to live.
Grandpa! I’d been well aware of his passion for anything related to the UK, but this crime and subterfuge in the name of literary fandom was news to me. “I loved those books too,” I murmured, picturing my late grandfather ducking into a picturesque English alley with a tabby under his arm.
“I brought one of Herriot’s books with me to the hospital when I had Emily,” Mom continued, subtly reframing my understanding of my little sister’s entry into the world. “I had a shared room with a curtain in the middle, and while the woman in labor in the next bed was screaming and screaming, I was reading about James Herriot with his arm halfway up a cow. Oh, come on, lady, I thought. It’s not like you’re delivering a calf.”
I called Mom for 30 days straight, per the Challenge (undertaken with her knowledge: I didn’t want her to think I was suddenly in constant contact because, say, a doctor had told me I had a year to live). She confessed early in the month that she’d worried about whether we’d have enough to say to one another, but as the James Herriot conversation demonstrated, that wasn’t a problem. Discovery of a shared cultural fascination, the revelation of deviant behavior, and the conclusion that our family is tougher than everyone else’s: it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying exchange, really.
Our daily chats skittered from subject to subject in a way that was also quite satisfying. When I hop topics with no apparent transition while talking to my husband, he complains that talking with me is like listening to a radio broadcast from another world. (Mom’s boyfriend has a similar issue with her.) Mom warned me during one of our first calls that she was going to mention something seemingly unrelated to what we’d been talking about; I assured her that showing one’s work is for amateurs.
I called Mom with a mild hangover after a New Year’s Eve house party in Brooklyn; I called her on breathless walks to the subway with the phone sandwiched between my head and my plaid earmuff; I called her as I tossed spices into simmering pots of winter soup. She took my calls from her bed after a nasty bout of stomach flu, from her car on a road trip from northern to southern California, from a borrowed condo near the beach. Our individual conversations began to feel like installments of a much longer conversation. I’d occasionally offer to ring her back when our calls were cut short, but she usually declined. “Talk to you tomorrow,” we said, serene as planets sweeping past each other in arcs across the universe. Our proximity wasn’t unprecedented, and it wasn’t final.
It wasn’t final, that is, until the end of the month loomed before us. Neither Mom nor I ever mentioned what would happen when our 30 days of calls were up. I braced myself for the last conversation, imagining it would feel like that bottomless afternoon when I left her at the airport so many years ago. Would one of us offer a valediction? Would we post-game the month together? Would I hang up, look out the window over the East River, and contemplate my mortality as a tugboat pushed a barge against the tide?
On the afternoon of Friday the 30th, the FDR Drive ran red with taillights as commuters got out of town. A booze cruise flashed blue and violet as it headed downriver, pulsing with techno music. “Have a good weekend,” Mom said, and she was gone.
I called her on Day 31.
Check out part one of Lauren’s 30-Day Challenge here.
Find out how the rest of our participants did: