Every Sunday, for the past 17 years, my mother’s garrulous voice has greeted me at the end of the phone line. I will have just waken up, most likely to a sunny Californian day, while she will be getting dinner ready, in her cozy apartment in Italy, the curtains drawn, the tv humming in the background. For 17 years, her voice has embodied my connection to a home that is no more, to a family than hangs by a thread and a love that has survived intact the wrath of my teenage years and my many moves.
The slight shrill in my mother’s “hello” will let me know immediately that everything is fine, while a more subdued and lower tone will presage unpleasant news. A brief humming just before she speaks, her trademark hesitation, conveys trouble, somebody else’s trouble typically, while the mention of my full name prefaces a question she is loath to ask.
That voice that praised me, scolded me, lulled me to sleep, admonished me and, above all, loved me is the voice I hear in my head every time I think of my mother. It’s part of my being as much as my own voice belongs to me. Someone told me that, when a loved one dies, the first thing we forget is the sound of their voice. No photograph can give it back and, while recording devices can preserve a sound for posterity, they are a far cry from accessing a memory at will as we go through our day. If all goes according as nature intended, my mother will die before me and the morbid thought of the loss of those Sunday phone calls has crossed my mind as I watch the two of us age.
After much prodding on the part of both her daughters, we convinced my mother to spend a couple of months in Los Angeles with me, rather than her customary two weeks. As I write or make dinner or even while I putter in another room, I can hear my mother softly singing or talking to the dogs as she stubbornly cleans and irons and tries to make herself useful. It’s hard to resist her happy sound, not to yield to the high tones or the broken notes, especially when she ventures outside to shout for the dogs, who probably disappeared chasing a rabbit or a squirrel. The concern I hear in her calls is the same she couldn’t disguise whenever I tiptoed through the front door, late at night, back from another revelry in my college years, letting me know she had waited up (although she always denied it in the morning).
And then the more placid “Good night” or “Here you are, you scoundrels” will follow, her worries assuaged by our return, everything and everyone once again where they belong.
The sound of her presence has brightened my house and made those who inhabit it, human and canine, happier and calmer. I believe it’s because the melody of her speech is irresistible and has the power to draw us in. It will be a much emptier shell when she leaves – the dogs’ snorting, the bubbling of the fish tank and the humming of the fridge will go back to being my day’s soundtrack. Until I reach for that phone and wait for the long, ringing tone of Italian lines and the shrilly “Pronto” will let me know everything and everyone is where they belong.