I put my mask over my face and stand near the door of the suburban AT&T store while the employee walks to the back to get my new phone for me. My old one stopped working reliably, and after a few clicks online, I am here in the store to get a new one. I reach my arm to the outstretched hand of the employee as we catch eye contact to connect behind our masked faces.
In another time and another place, I can remember my grandmother’s yellow rotary phone that hung on the edge of the wall at the end of her kitchen. After dinner on Friday nights, she’d take the long coiled cord and reach it all the way to the couch, as far as it would stretch, where she’d talk to our family in Dallas. I’d listen to their back and forth, the musicality of her southern speech, pauses between her own pieces of a story. These talks would last for hours, lifetimes of memories they kept alive across eight hundred miles with a long coiled cord.
But now we have tiny screens in the palms of our hands instead, and I can’t sleep. I wake in a panic in the early morning hours to toss and turn and eventually doze off again only to wake an hour later, stumble to the coffee maker, and read a daily email alert from my hand. I see numbers (138,737) and phrases (surge of cases, exponential growth). A deluge of information I am supposed to use to make the best decisions possible. But lately that decision doesn’t feel like a choice at all but paralysis instead. Like an animal prey, I am frozen and hoping if I spend long enough in stillness, this invisible predator won’t see me.
The chimes begin ringing by 8am, and my relationships are held up with these short bursts of communication and fractured conversations. Instead of my grandmother’s meandering talks on her yellow rotary phone, my friends and I pick up the thread from days or hours before and answer one another in broken patches of time stolen from our own spinning lives. All of our biggest fears and confusions are distilled in a few lines of text on a screen, but we have learned to make sense of them and now they become lifelines, little houses made of string to shelter us.
I break the rules sometimes and stand too close to my neighbor as we watch our kids play in the creek that runs behind our suburban Atlanta subdivision. She sits in her folding camping chair next to mine with her one breast, waiting on the hospital to find time in their schedule to place the spacer that will make room for her second one, a cancer treatment plan paused in the midst of its reconstruction. We can hardly see the kids through the thick green leaves, but we listen for any cries or scrapes or bruises we need to tend to. We offer bug spray and watch for snakes in the rocky creek bed. We joke about the terrors that 2020 brought while our kids get muddy and build a fort in the clearing beyond where we sit.
I recite the list of what I’m craving right now: vacations, laughs with coworkers, hugs, a restaurant table with friends, grocery shopping without a mask on. Or maybe what I miss is creek beds and rotary phones. Or clotheslines and piles of cousins with legs stacked on top of each other on the cool cement of a shaded porch. I miss a childhood and a lifetime unmarred by this. But now my own kids wake early talking about this creek they’ve discovered. They beg to stay all day to dig and stack rocks and build forts. Everyday feels like a repeat of the one before, and I wash their feral hands and feet with the water hose before they walk in the house again. As much as I feel an ache for normal, I wonder if one day they will ache for this instead. The summer that time forgot.
As a mother, I cannot find the ground in every moment. This space sometimes feels like a tight cage, and sometimes it is nothing but wide open space with no boundaries at all. I need the spiritual equivalent of a rotary phone that can stretch its long coiled cord and take me all the way back to what we were before this mess, and I know that will never come. Instead I am pushed off a ledge into whatever comes next, and I can’t feel where the edge is, where this will end.
But tonight, the tiny screen in my palm is working again, and it will have to do for now, with all of its fragmented pieces and conversations. The kids roll in after a few days with their father, and my house is busy again. A line of homegrown tomatoes rests on our window sill, the first ones of the season. When it’s almost time for dinner, I take one from the window, red and round and smelling like sunshine.
Memories are held in that smell. Barefoot afternoons on the cool concrete of a shaded porch. Clotheslines and box forts. Ears of fresh corn. Cicadas loud in the thick humidity of a summer afternoon. Cold creek water. I slice this one, in my kitchen decades away from those moments, and I feel it, that glimmer of what we were before. I taste the burst of sharpness on my tongue, and it is every summer that came before, all the years when things were different.
Tonight we bake a strawberry cake like it’s a celebration but for no reason at all. I watch my daughter’s little fingers place each strawberry on top of the batter one at a time. My phone plays music on the speaker. The strange new boundaries and borders of my life fade in the distance where I cannot see them, and the three of us are here together. In this moment, I forget what I don’t want to know.