The Black Phone

by Alexandra Loeb

Carolyn drew a deep breath and tried to ready herself for her mother’s invasion. It was a damp spring Saturday morning and as she stood on the top of the brick steps of her front porch, drinking tea from her favorite handle-less mug, she looked at the wet cherry tree blossoms on the stairs and wished she had felt well enough to sweep them off yesterday. All she needed was for her sixty-eight-year-old mother, Joyce, to fall.

The moving van arrived. It was small. Her mother had told her she was only bringing her bedroom suite. She had gotten rid of all her other items. “If it doesn’t fit in your guest room, I won’t bring it,” Joyce had said. She hadn’t responded when Carolyn reminded her the guest bedroom was already furnished, so Carolyn had moved all of that out—to the sort of storage unit she had sworn she’d never rent. The sort of unit where people hid dead bodies. The sort of unit where toxic black mold would likely grow on her furniture.

Joyce pulled alongside the moving van in her red Ford Fusion just a little too fast. Carolyn exhaled and waved.

“I’ll be right there,” her mother yelled as she stepped out of the car. She was wearing a lavender vintage hat and clutching an old black rotary telephone. Between the hat and phone, Carolyn thought she looked like a Ladies’ Home Journal advertisement circa 1945—except for the glittered sneakers.

“What’s that?” Carolyn asked.

“My phone,” Joyce replied.

“There’s no phone jack in your bedroom,” Carolyn informed her.

Her mother took a firmer grip on the phone. “I’m keeping this phone.”

Carolyn looked at Joyce's tangerine lips and her sophisticated grey bob. “Fine,” she said, thinking, not for the first time, that she would never understand her mother.

That night Carolyn walked down the hall to the guest room where Joyce was unpacking. It was just past the front door, but Carolyn rarely went down that hallway. She wondered why this was where she decided to put so many family photos. She paused to straighten a photo of her husband, Ted, their daughter, Maya, and their son, Logan, squished onto a swing built for one. It was a sunny day—the kind that made you forget the long, wet winter. While staring at the photo, she heard her mother talking. Wondering what her mother was up to but not wanting conflict on her first day she hollered, “Mom, dinner’s ready.”

A few minutes later, she, Logan, Maya, and Joyce were seated around the small oval dining table eating chicken potpie, the standard for Saturday night. Carolyn had not had anyone over for dinner since Ted died, two years ago. She did not want to bother with other people’s preferences and have to alter her weekly menu. She had wondered which would be more awkward—to seat Joyce at her place and move herself to her dead husband’s position at the other end of the table, or to seat Joyce in Ted’s chair. In the end she thought it would upset the children less to seat her mother where Ted used to sit.

“Are you staying long?” Maya, who was eleven, asked her grandmother.

“I hope to stay here as long as I live,” she replied.

Logan, aged nine, scrunched up his face as if trying not to cry.

“What’s wrong, Logan?” Carolyn asked.

“I just wonder how long Grandma will live if she sits in that chair. That was Daddy’s chair and he had a brain burst. Is that chair bad luck?”

Before Carolyn could say a word, Maya jumped in. “Don’t be stupid. Of course not. And it’s called an aneurysm, not a brain burst.”

Carolyn scolded Maya for calling Logan stupid, and added, “But she’s right. Your father’s death had nothing to do with that chair.”

“Do you miss your father?” Joyce asked Logan.

Carolyn glared at her mother. “You can’t just ask a nine year old something like that!”

“Yes, very much,” Logan said.

“I bet you do, honey,” Joyce said. And then she started to tell the kids a story about how their grandfather, who had passed away when Carolyn was seventeen, once sat in a chair at an important business dinner and the chair collapsed beneath him.

“Was he hurt?” Logan asked.

Carolyn was relieved to hear her mother answer “no.”

“Was he embarrassed?” Maya asked.

“I’ll have to ask him,” Joyce responded. Then, after looking at each of the faces staring at her, she said, “I mean, I never asked him.”

Joyce filled the rest of dinner with stories of Carolyn’s father. His goodness was the one thing Carolyn and Joyce could agree on. He was the only person who could make Joyce see reality. When Joyce signed seven-year-old Carolyn up for a rafting trip before Carolyn learned how to swim, her father canceled the trip and signed up Carolyn for swim lessons. Now her mother was here to help Carolyn parent. She started to panic, thinking of all the mistakes her mother had made with her and would repeat with her children. And all the arguments that would ensue.

She heard her mother say to the kids, “Help me clear the table.” Carolyn looked up and watched in amazement as they got up and helped without protest.

Lying in bed that night, Carolyn wished Ted was here to help her deal with her mother. Ted had found Joyce “amusing and harmless.” “Harmless if you’re an adult,” was always Carolyn’s response. But as with most things, Ted had had a reassuring effect on Carolyn. They met at the University of British Columbia School of Dentistry. When she worried about an exam, Ted would study with her. When she forgot to eat, Ted would make his wonderful beef stew with enough leftovers for her to eat all week. Ted was so comforting that Carolyn let herself relax with him. She thought about the day he took her to Lion’s Bay to cliff jump. It was a hot day. They had a long bus ride followed by a walk by the railroad tracks. And then there they were—sixty feet above the ocean. She never thought she would jump, but somehow with Ted’s confidence she did. She wouldn’t do it again, but she did do it once.

By the end of their last year of dental school, Carolyn was pregnant with Maya. She and Ted moved to Victoria to start their dental practice where their lives centered around their children and work. They managed work so they only had to put the kids in day care three days a week. And Ted was the primary home cook. Now Carolyn had to work full-time and parent their children alone.

A few days later after work, Carolyn was taking off her raincoat by the front door when she heard commotion from her mother’s bedroom. As she got closer she heard Logan say, “I’m sorry, Grandma.”

Carolyn entered the room and saw Joyce holding the black phone and Logan staring at the heavy handle still in his hands, the cord between them swaying as if waiting for the argument to end. Maya was sitting cross-legged on the bed and said, “I told you we’d get in trouble.”

Logan looked at his mother and said, “But all the other people who come visit talk on it. And I’ve never seen a phone that dials like that.”

“It’s OK sweetie. Why don’t you and Maya go do your homework and I’ll talk to Grandma,” Carolyn responded.

As Logan handed his grandmother the handle, Joyce kissed him on the forehead. “I love you,” she said. “I just need my privacy, ok?”

After both kids left, Carolyn turned to her mother. “I didn’t invite you into my house to yell at my kids.”

“I wasn’t yelling and you didn’t invite me into your house,” her mother responded. “I am here because you need me. Carolyn, you are no longer parenting alone.”

Carolyn walked out of the room, slamming the door behind her. She mumbled to herself, “I am still their only parent.”

It was the second time Carolyn had had this conversation with her mother. The first was just months after Ted died when Carolyn had called her mother in frustration.

“I need Halloween costume ideas,” Carolyn explained. “I’m just so overwhelmed parenting alone that I have no creativity.”

“But you’re not parenting alone. I’m here for you,” her mother replied before suggesting outrageously complicated costume ideas.

“Mom, you’re one hundred kilometers and a ferry ride away,” Carolyn said, silently vowing to never turn to her mother for help again.

For over a year, she was able to keep that vow and maintain a stable home for her children. Carolyn had always been the organizer in her marriage, but she put that skill into overdrive. She embraced routine. She decided on a set menu for dinner every day of the week, including the one practical thing she had learned from her mother: how to make chicken potpie and lasagna in large batches and freeze them. She taught herself to cook chicken stir-fry, ground turkey tacos, baked salmon, and shrimp pasta for the other four days of the week. On Sundays they ordered pizza. Every weekday, she had standard lunches, a schedule for homework, a set half hour of TV, and a strict bedtime routine.

It had already started to get more difficult as the kids signed up for sports and music classes and pushed against her routines. Logan played hockey while Maya played field hockey. Carolyn found it ironic that two sports so close in name could have such completely different schedules and equipment lists.

Carolyn was still holding it all together when the migraines hit. She’d had them a few years before but nothing like these. In the past they mainly hit before her period and would last a few hours. Ted would be able to keep the household and dental practice humming. Now, they sometimes came once a week and could last up to two days. Managing work was hard, but the kids were impossible. Logan was devastated when he had to miss a hockey game because she got sick too late to call another parent. It was supposed to be his first game being on the starting forward line.

When Logan told his grandmother about the missed hockey game during the next family Skype call, Joyce declared, “I have a solution.” She paused dramatically, clapped her hands, and said, “Kids, what do you think about Grandma moving in?”

Both kids yelled “Yay!” at the same time. The three of them continued talking as if it were a done deal.

“Mom, let’s talk about this later, ok?” Carolyn said, hating the idea.

“Think about it,” Joyce said airily. “I could sell my house and use the money for a retirement home or extra medical care when I need it. In the meantime, I can help fill in the parenting gaps that your migraines have created.”

It was the first time Carolyn could remember her mother offering logic and practical help. The next day at work, she stewed over her mother’s suggestion, writing down pros and cons. The only item on the pro column was “taking care of the kids when I am sick.” She filled the entire front and back of the paper with cons. At work, while poking patients’ gums to see if they were numb, she mentally added out of touch to the con list. While she listened to her assistant discuss oral hygiene with a patient, she added disorganized. When a patient failed to show up for an appointment, she added undependable. But whenever she returned to her desk, she picked up the paper and stared at the single pro. After two days of avoiding her mother's calls, Carolyn finally accepted one.

“We don’t do so well living together,” Carolyn said, thinking of the summer before college when she had found her mother at the kitchen table asking her boyfriend if he used condoms. One of the last words she had said to her mother while they still lived together was “Boundaries!” After she left for college, she never lived at home again, struggling to pay rent with summer jobs but preferring anything to living with her mother.

“We were both so young then,” Joyce replied, the closest she had ever come to apologizing.

Carolyn surprised herself by agreeing to her mother’s moving in. Primarily she felt like she didn’t have a choice. But maybe her mother was right. Maybe they had both grown up.

One day, not long after her mother moved in, Carolyn took close to an hour to numb her last patient, making her forty-five minutes late leaving the office. When Carolyn got home, the kids were sitting at the coffee table with their homework spread out in front of them. It was almost dinnertime, and Carolyn saw no sign of cooking, but for a moment it looked like her mother had gotten them to do their schoolwork. Then Carolyn noticed the TV was on and their complete attention was on it. Carolyn switched off the TV and gave the kids a look. Without a word, both of them lowered their heads and started on their homework.

“Where’s your grandmother?” she asked.

“She said she needed some alone time. She’s in her bedroom,” Maya said.

Carolyn went to the bedroom door and could hear talking from inside. Just like her mother did to her in high school, she didn’t knock, but quietly opened the door. Her mother had the large handset of the black rotary phone against her ear. Joyce looked up, whispered “bye” into the receiver and gently hung it up. She held her daughter’s gaze the entire time.

“What on earth are you doing?” Carolyn asked. “And why aren’t you making dinner?”

“I ordered Chinese food,” Joyce replied.

“But I already thawed the salmon!” Carolyn said.

They both paused and stared at each other. Carolyn wanted to scream at her mother, explain how important her routine is to the children, how much the salmon cost. But she retreated to her seventeen-year-old behavior and stood silent, cursing her mother with her eyes.

“You need to learn to knock,” her mother finally said.

“I didn’t have a very good teacher,” Carolyn replied.

During the week, Joyce began to help with the childcare routine. She made the kids’ breakfast and lunch with much more enthusiasm and flexibility than Carolyn ever had. She knew that Maya did not like soft lettuce or tomatoes. Only crunchy lettuce and maybe some cucumbers. Logan wanted at least five different colored foods in each lunch. For the first time since Ted died, their lunch boxes came back empty.

“How did you know?” Carolyn asked her mom.

“I asked them,” Joyce replied.

Carolyn wondered why she had not asked the kids earlier—or not listened if they told her. Did her mother ask her her preferences growing up? Did she ever answer her? She couldn’t remember ever confiding anything in her mother, even her food preferences.

When Carolyn asked her mother to watch the kids after school and drive them to sports games and music lessons, however, her mother was less enthusiastic. Joyce thought they had too many after school activities.

“They need structure,” Carolyn said, “just like I did when Daddy died. You kept me out of school for an entire month, when I needed that routine the most.”

“Oh honey, I asked you every Sunday night if you wanted to go to school. And you wouldn’t talk to me. You wouldn’t say a word. So I assumed you weren’t ready. You would never talk to me, tell me what you needed.”

Then, her mother said shuttling the kids would interfere with her appointments.

“What appointments?” Carolyn asked.

“My friends like to drop by,” her mother said.

“Then why did you say appointments?” Carolyn asked. “Look, the kids just need a few rides and an adult in the house when they are home. It’s fine if your friends are here too.”

Carolyn knew Joyce made friends easily. In a few weeks she was already friendly with the barista, their mail carrier and the neighbor across the street, when Carolyn didn’t even know their names. When Carolyn tucked the kids in goodnight, they told her how popular Grandma was. Logan thought she had ten visitors every day. After Carolyn pressed him, he lowered it to three. But even three friends a day seemed like a lot.

When she tucked Maya in, Carolyn asked if it was true.

“Yes,” Maya confirmed. “The woman who cuts her hair, Maria, was here today. Her husband died the same week as Daddy.” Giving in to a rare rush of emotion, Carolyn hugged her daughter tight to her chest. She tucked her in tighter and quietly left the room

Carolyn wondered what her mother offered these friends of hers. She could imagine Joyce telling Maria, “Let out your grief. Let me hear it,” as she had told Carolyn hundreds of time. Carolyn not only resented being told how to grieve but she also resented her mother placing herself in the center of it. Why should she let anyone hear her grieve? She especially couldn’t imagine doing so in front of her mother. And there was no way she was going to have a breakdown in front of her now fatherless children.

She listened to the soft rain. Alone in her bedroom, Carolyn allowed herself to cry. The tears flowed as strong as they had when Ted first passed away. Carolyn smothered her head in the pillow, trying to still her breath. Instead she started hiccupping, breathing huge mouthfuls of pillow between each one. She went to the bathroom and turned the shower on its hottest setting. She knew the pain of the hot water would stop the crying. She knew because she had started this routine a week after Ted died when she had vowed to stop crying in front of the children. She had just started getting her nighttime crying ritual under control when the migraines started.

After she returned to bed, her skin still hot, she started to feel calmer and thought that maybe she was worried about her mother for no reason. She had noticed how Maya had stopped chewing her nails since their grandmother had moved in. Maya and Logan both loved their grandmother, loved her stories. Still, Carolyn worried that the kids’ routines were in disarray; last night’s Chinese dinner didn’t come until 7:30 p.m. But Carolyn liked how easily her mother could talk to the kids and find out what was going on at school and with their friends.

Friday at her noon break, Carolyn started yawning and she felt her neck begin to stiffen. As she massaged it, she felt pins and needles in her left leg. She knew the signs of a migraine. Today she was lucky. She had a light afternoon scheduled, and her receptionist only needed to shift one client to Carolyn’s partner before she was able to drive herself home safely and call her mother en route. By the time the migraine hit, Carolyn was in bed, shades drawn, with a glass of water and her medicine at her bedside table. She left the “Aromatherapy Kit for Migraines” her mother had bought in her bathroom cabinet, unopened, next to all the essential oils for grief.

It was Saturday late afternoon before she emerged from her bedroom. She woke up calm, knowing that regardless of how her mother had disturbed their routines, she had taken care of the kids while Carolyn was in bed. Walking down the stairs, she heard voices.

“Mom!” Jacob said. “Guess what? Grandma said we could have a sleepover!”

Carolyn could see the kids’ friends, Danica and Jacob, sitting by the coffee table playing cards. Maya and Logan had not had a sleepover at their house since Ted died.

Joyce stepped out of the kitchen. “Good to see you up, dear. Just one day this time. See, that aromatherapy works!”

Carolyn managed a weak smile and then looked again at the children.

“Don’t worry, honey,” her mother said, “I’ll watch them—maybe tomorrow you can go for a run or something.”

Since her mother had moved in, Carolyn had started running again on weekday mornings, taking advantage of the half hour her mother saved her by making the kids’ lunches. With this extra time, she could squeeze in a 5K run through Beacon Hill Park and still be back to see the kids off to school. The morning after the sleepover, while her mother cleaned up from the pancakes she made for the children, Carolyn went for the longer run her body craved.

To keep up a pace for an hour, Carolyn ran slowly. It was a bright sunny day—the first one in months. She started on her normal route, slowing to see the views of the Olympic Mountains to the south in Washington as she crested a hill in the park, and then she extended her run by the ocean on Dallas Road, thinking of the time she had run this route with Ted and told him she was pregnant with Logan. Even though she and Ted never wanted a third child, she regretted that now it was no longer a choice. As she ran back toward her house, she thought about the day she first got her period and her mother tried to talk to her about the birds and the bees. It was the first time Carolyn had said “Boundaries!” to her mother, a word she had learned from her seventh grade Healthy Living class. She was overdue for these conversations with Maya, and she wondered now if it was Maya’s boundaries or her own that held her back.

When she got home, she started to stretch her quads on the front porch. Standing on her left leg and pulling her right ankle toward her butt, she heard voices inside. She opened the front door.

“Hello?” There was no reply. “Hello?” she repeated louder.

“Oh hi,” Danica’s mom said, avoiding eye contact as she came down the hallway from Joyce’s bedroom. “I was just getting Danica.” And with that she yelled for Danica, who was with the other kids in the backyard. As Danica rounded the corner, her mother grabbed her by the hand and quickly left.

Just as she was leaving, Jacob’s mom came to the front door. When she saw Carolyn, Jacob’s mom said, “Oh darn, you’re already home.”

“I’m sorry?” Carolyn said.

“Oh, um, I just wanted to get Jacob out of your hair before you got home,” Jacob’s mom replied. And then she yelled, “Jacob! Get your stuff. I’m not staying.” As they waited for Jacob, his mom asked Carolyn, “Do you run every Sunday?”

Carolyn tried to make sense of what was happening with these women in her home. Maybe her mother knew Danica’s mom from somewhere else? Maybe it was a social visit? Then she remembered that Danica’s mom had a stillborn daughter a year ago. And she thought she’d heard that Jacob’s mom had recently lost a sister to breast cancer. Carolyn wondered if they, too, were seeing her mother about their grief. She wanted to ask her mother about it, but she knew her mother would turn the conversation to Carolyn’s grief and Carolyn had had enough of her mother’s grief remedies. Over the past two years, her mother had sent her Skullcap tea and lectured her on sleep hygiene. She sent frankincense and told her it would calm her mind, bring her closer to God and help her process her sadness. Whatever the issue, her mother sent essential oils. Carolyn laughed to herself, remembering that her mother once sent her lavender to treat both grief and migraines.

A few weekends later, her mother arranged another sleepover without asking Carolyn. At least she was able to go for a long run again. She felt strong; she hadn’t had a migraine for two weeks. As Carolyn paused to appreciate the view of the Olympic Mountains, she noticed the darkening sky. Moments later, it began to pour. She shortened her route and headed home, quickening her pace. As she started to run up her driveway, she saw both Jacob’s and Danica’s mothers’ cars on the street. Soaking wet, she entered her house quietly, determined to figure out what was going on.

All four children were watching television. Carolyn started walking towards her mother’s room. Maya called after her, “Aren’t you going to take your wet shoes off?” And then she heard Logan say, “Mom, they said they need their privacy.” As she approached her mother’s room, she could hear voices. Feeling like an idiot, she pressed her ear to the door. Leaning in, she heard Danica’s mother sniffle, “I love you so very much. I miss you every day, baby girl.” Then there was silence. Carolyn opened the door to see Danica’s mother standing, holding the receiver of the black phone with one hand and Joyce’s hand with the other. Jacob’s mother was on the bed, with her head slightly bowed.

They all looked at Carolyn who stood at the door frozen, with her hand still on the doorknob, staring directly at her mother.

Jacob’s mom looked toward Joyce. “Next time can I please go first? This is the second time I’ve missed out.”

“Missed out on what?” Carolyn asked.

Danica and Jacob’s moms both mumbled it was time to leave and eased their way out around Carolyn, who was still locked in place inside the doorframe. She mindlessly shifted to let them pass while she kept staring at her mother who now stood in front of her. “Mom?”

Her mother reached up and put a hand on each of her shoulders. “Some of us are ready to process our grief.”

“Meaning what exactly?” Carolyn asked, not moving.

“You have been so scared all of your life. But now is the time to embrace life, your children, even the dead.”

Carolyn shook her head. “Mom, children need safety and stability. You never understood that.” She began to rub her own arms.

“You’re cold. Go change. Take a warm shower. We’ll talk about this later, I promise.”

Carolyn wanted to talk about it now. But her mother was right, she was cold. And she didn’t realize until that moment that she was utterly exhausted. She sighed, turned and went upstairs to shower. Under the hot water she thought how hard she had worked at keeping her and her children’s life well-ordered after Ted died. Now, despite things running more smoothly on the surface, her life seemed less in control.

As she was toweling off, Logan yelled upstairs, “Grandma said we could go out for a movie and then pizza!”

Maya quickly added, “Please Mom, can we?”

Carolyn sighed and looked at herself in the mirror. She could see her bed in the reflection and just wanted to crawl into it. “You guys go,” Carolyn yelled down. “I’m going to stay home.” Quietly she added, “I’m tired.”

Within the hour they were all gone. It was rare for Carolyn to be in the house alone and even odder for her to be in her pajamas and in bed in the middle of the afternoon when she did not have a migraine. She lay there a while and then sat up, stepped into her slippers, and shuffled to her closet. She ran her hands over her hanging clothes and stopped at her favorite sweater. She hadn’t worn it since Ted died. It was a soft, burgundy cashmere—a Christmas gift from three years ago. That Christmas Ted had pushed to open presents on Christmas Eve. “We need to try new things,” he had said. “But I like things exactly as they are,” she’d replied. She slipped the sweater over her pajamas and hugged herself. Putting her nose close to her shoulder, she breathed deeply, searching to smell Ted.

She went downstairs and made a cup of licorice tea in her handle-less mug. Cradling the tea, she wandered down the hallway to her mother’s room, looking at each photo. A few times she reached out and traced Ted’s image. She found herself in front of her mother’s bedroom door. Opening it slowly, she stepped inside, and quietly closed the door behind her. She scanned the room stopping at the black phone. She walked over and ran her finger along the rotary dial. She stepped back, sat on the bed, and stared at the phone. When she finished her tea, she lay back onto the bed, looking at the ceiling. She thought of the day Maya was born. Ted had crawled into the hospital bed and taken a selfie of the three of them, well before selfies were a trend. They had laughed later at how bad the photo was, but Ted had ordered a mug embossed with the photo anyway. He used it every morning for coffee. He was holding it when he had his aneurysm. It had shattered on the floor.

Carolyn got up and walked over to the phone. She rested her hand on the receiver, slowly wrapping her fingers around its curve. Finally, she picked it up.

“Ted,” she started.

About the Author

Alexandra Loeb

Alexandra Loeb was born in Gainesville, Georgia, and spent most of her adult life in Seattle working at Microsoft as an executive. She now lives in the small town of Rossland, BC. She was recently published in Kootenay Living Magazine and is focusing her nerdy brain writing fiction and nonfiction.