Two long rings and a short ring…two long rings and a short ring… The telephone startled mother as she tended sizzling bacon. A done-just-right strip hung limp from a wood-handled fork, the one grandma Griffes favored when mother was little. The cast iron skillet crackled and snapped. The kitchen smelled like Sunday. I was five years old.
After the second set of rings, mother laid the fork on the linoleum countertop and wiped her hands on her flowered apron. Five brown-shelled eggs waited in a yellow bowl. She turned; from the look of concern on her face I thought I was in trouble. I stepped out of the kitchen.
Through the open bathroom door I saw father’s burgundy razor buzz up and down his left cheek. He stared at the mirror. His mouth was open; his face contorted from stretching the skin with his left hand. His reddish hair was almost black, wet and slicked back. He wore the white terrycloth bathrobe mom said she gave him for his birthday. Two rooms away and engrossed in his morning ritual, Dad didn’t hear the telephone’s rings, “two longs and a short” they called it.
Mother picked up the black bakelite handset from the “modern desk phone;” oak wall ringers were passé. “Hello?” the tone of mother’s voice was different, but it always was when the telephone rang. She listened, then said, “I’ll get David.” The hem of mother’s pink and white housecoat swooshed by.
“David, LoReta’s on the telephone,” she said with a commanding tone.
“Oh? What’s wrong?” Father clicked off the razor and marched out of the bathroom, like he did when the cows were out. The folded hem grandma Sturgis hand stitched whisked by again. Mother wrung her hands behind dad. She sniffled.
It didn’t make sense to me. I stayed in the living room, farming on the back forty of a scratchy, grayish-brown wool carpet. My meager implements included a red tractor, a harrow and a wagon. I finished tilling and drove the tractor and harrow into the red barn father made. To me, “LoReta” sounded like someone other than my “Aunt LoReta,” father’s oldest sister, the aunt everyone kidded about being named after grandfather’s famous pacer, Cambridge Belle. “Belle” was Aunt LoReta’s middle name…
We had a party line. Our telephone number was “77,” and dad’s lumberyard was “97.” The exchange was “Lyric,” but no one remembered, two numbers were sufficient. The phone rang with a funny combination of long and short rings, a system of dots and dashes, most often ignored, at least in our household.
With disdain and perhaps a twinge of curiosity, mother often spoke the name of the lady up the road who listened to every call on our line. The “click” of her receiver was obvious, once you heard it. The neighbor lady’s “revelations” found their way to the American Legion hall every Saturday night.
The thin, black wires were strung on weathered-gray poles and draped through trees beside our dusty gravel road. In my memory, that’s the way it had always been. I was in junior high before I realized the droopy telephone lines stigmatized my social standing, marking me as “living in the country,” as if it made a difference. When two longs and a short sounded, it was either dad calling mom from the lumberyard, or something teary-eyed serious—sometimes both.
I didn’t pay attention to the unfolding family drama until father’s voice hushed, grew low and cracked. I heard him say something about “we’ll be there,” and “don’t worry, LoReta, I’ll get dressed and go tell mom and dad.”
I recall my stomach aching. “We’ll be there” sounded far away. I didn’t want them to leave. Hadn’t an airplane just taken them far away? Besides, mother hated planes, something about “bumpy mountains?” It was fun when grandma Sturgis stayed with us, but did they have to leave, I wondered.
Years later, mother told me they had flown to California to see my older brother, John, and came back the day before. Mom always talked about how bumpy the ride was over the Rockies. The plane was a four-engine prop job. Based on that 1955 trip, she avoided air travel with a passion.
But hearing dad’s voice tremble started my world shaking. Farming could wait. I remember standing in the dining room doorway. Mom and dad were hugging. Mom was sobbing; dad’s face was turned away—that was serious, too, because they always broke the clench when either my brother or I wandered in, but not this time. I’d learn it was part of the old way, never showing undue affection in front of others, even your own children. That didn’t change until I was a teenager, and then not that much.
Mother’s eyes were red. She turned the range off and moved the skillet to a cold burner, paying no further attention to the sizzling Sunday breakfast.
“Are you leaving?” I asked, afraid to hear the answer.
“Why, no,” mother said with a sniffle.
Mother looked at father, then dad took a deep breath, “Your Uncle Erwin passed away last night.” They waited for my reaction.
To me, Uncle Erwin was a big scary man who smelled of smoke, always wore a dark suit and sat in the green chair with the prickly upholstery in the living room at Aunt LoReta’s house. I remember thinking that it was funny that they were so upset. I didn’t understand. After all, they were “away” and came back fine. I shrugged and went back to my farming, which is what a five-year old does when father and mother’s world makes no sense.
Experience small-town life, be safe and may God bless you.