by Kirsten Burningham
As a college freshman, I stretched my wings, and it was irritating to feel my mom’s desire to tether herself, ever so slightly, to me. I took pride in how little I needed—perhaps, even, how little I wanted from her. I can’t remember exactly what was bothering me about our last phone call; perhaps it was simply that she called, interrupting my socializing with her interest in my life. Whatever the reason, I was festering, and her needs were pestering me, so I walked from the back row of my Intro to Sociology class, passing metal-backed and spring-seated chairs, to the front of the auditorium for advice from my professor.
After a brief description of my angsty mother-daughter relationship, my professor asked, “So, when do you call your mom?”
A simple question, really. But the answer that formed in my mind pummeled me like a tidal wave that still today tumbles me senseless in its undercurrent.
“Only when I need money,” I responded.
Alexander Graham Bell’s mother was hearing impaired. As a child, Alexander would speak to his mother forehead to forehead, so close she could feel the vibrations of his voice. Did she understand the words he whispered into the wisps of her hair? Was the closeness—having him near and sensing his vibrations—was that enough for his mother? For him? I imagine his hand curled around the back of her head, interweaving between strands of her hair as he purred into her temple.
I am now approaching forty-years-old, and as I look back, I can say, “Of course, I’ve always needed my mom.” But because of the elemental role she played in my life, I couldn’t then see my reliance on her in the compounds that were forming into my life. I leaned on her for support, but told myself I was running free—my strength, my grit alone, got me to my destination. Like a child’s prayer that is at first a parroting of a parent’s bite-sized phrases, adjusted to their ability to repeat in full—our lives are mere impressions. Only later do they become independent and individual. But how does one know when a mother’s phrases end and a child’s personal prayer begins? When did her bedrock, formational words finish and my unique petitions form? The lines are blurry at best, and it’s been easy to write her out of my story of growth. If it weren’t for her soft “please bless this” and “thank you for that,” would I even know how to pray? Or why to pray? Or when to pray? Would I know how to live?
I made my first phone call from our faded mustard-yellow rotary phone. It was attached to the wall above our wood stove fireplace in the kitchen. My mom guided my hand to show me how each digit had to go all the way around the circle to connect. You had to be patient when dialing on a rotary phone. It could not be rushed. She had every relevant number from the phone book memorized, so I would wait for her voice to cue the next number and then pull it over with a satisfying zip.
One night, when I was about eight years old, I was sharing a mattress on the floor with my mom while on vacation. We were exhausted from traveling, but I watched as she lay on her back and prayed. I’d somehow imagined up for myself a towering, indignantly regal God who expected nothing but a quivering bow, who would only ever hold an audience with the profoundly obedient. My mother’s prayer, which some may measure insouciant, was, I felt, a deeply spiritual devotion: a spirit of the law of transcendence that challenged my basic and pharisaic notions of prayer. So the lesson I learned in that moment wasn’t really to pray—she’d already taught me that. It was that God hears us even when we are tired, even when we know we should kneel up but can’t muster the energy, so we send up a wish, a hope, a need, a soft call to the divine, before we sink into our mortal slumber. I prayed more after that; I even sent up the sloppy prayers I would have previously thought too unfinished for God.
The first flip phone was introduced when I was eight years old, but I wouldn’t own one until my first year of college. That first year of college was like middle school on steroids. I was testing truths and pushing boundaries to see if they were really where my parents said they would be. Some boundaries were more flexible than I had imagined, others I was still working out—like how often I really needed to call my mom, and how often she should be calling me. Others were exactly where I had been taught they would be, though I’d occasionally feigned ignorance. However, at least one truth was reiterated for me on a deeper level. I remember standing in the football stadium endzone, my phone’s qwerty keyboard clicking like an incantation. After selecting the name of the person I wanted to contact, I stood spellbound when the right person answered. It weirdly strengthened my faith. Though I wouldn’t have acknowledged it in this way at the time, it was like seeing my mother pray while flat on her back, almost casually, but knowing she was heard, and knowing that she knew she was heard—wherever, whenever, and however. It seemed that if that little pressed cube could spit forth an almost exact duplication of my voice through invisible airwaves to the precise location I desired, then yes, God did hear my frantic and mostly fervent prayers, and They even heard the sleepy yawning prayers, maybe even the prayers I forgot to say.
Famously, the first words spoken from a human voice and transmitted through wire were sent from Alexander Graham Bell, who bounced them across the laboratory to his assistant, saying, “Mr. Watson, come here. I need you.” Later, in a demonstration, he would say, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”
Come here. I need you. I want you. I believe those words summarize the increasingly throbbing core of every phone call I made to my mother after my professor’s question exposed my self-centered blindness, my ignorant, toddler-like use and abuse of my mother’s forbearing, swaddling voice. Slowly, heavily, I exposed the many layers of need I had for my mom. Money was merely the most urgent, superficial, and salient demand that peaked above the icy waters. Below the surface, my needs matched and then outsized her own. Increasingly, I wanted to draw her forehead closer to mine, to hug the soft wave of her hair to me, and whisper my vibrations, my resonance, so she could feel the truth of my need.
Eventually, I called her on a steady, rhythmic basis. Just because I wanted to, because I needed her advice with this wild thing called pregnancy, and then with the downright deception of breastfeeding. (I mean, some women make it look like eating chocolate, or taking a stroll in the park. I, on the other hand, was being devoured and chased down by wailing sirens.) If I called and my mom didn’t pick up, I knew her phone was at the bottom of her purse or the battery was dead; she never upgraded past a flip phone’s three-hour battery life. So, I would immediately call my dad—never to talk to him (bless you, Dad. I love you, but you’re terrible at phone conversations). After the obligatory salutations, I asked him to please pass the phone to Mom.
Calling my mom became a preamble to talking with God. I’d wrestle a tough topic out with her on the phone, and then I could take a clearer picture of my challenge to God. It became uncomfortable to go too long without talking to her. She patiently listened to me as I tacked awkwardly through the early headwinds of motherhood. She was my safe harbor as I voyaged through the tumultuous swells of bearing and raising children.
I had a three-year-old who played like Houdini, and Mom understood my anxiety. I’d call to tell her how he had escaped through the locked backyard fence and played chicken with the FedEx truck to cross the busy road. I laughed and cried with her after reading a neighborhood Facebook post about a little lost boy. That same afternoon, probably while I was sucked into my chair nursing the baby, my son had apparently waltzed out the front door and let himself into the first unlocked house he could find. We now have a top lock on our front door eponymously named the “Eli” lock.
Being an independent, disconnected daughter lost its smack. The increasing weight of children depending on me had me smarting for my own freedom to simply depend on someone else. I wanted more and more to sink into my mom’s lap, to tuck my head into the crook of her neck, to let her caress my hair and soothe me back to sleep. I could rest on the other end of an eternal phone call, curling and uncurling my fingers in the cord, just to sit with her voice.
The last good phone call I remember with my mom when she still sounded like mom, was about three months before she passed away. She called to check in on Eli. With unusual urgency and clarity, she told me she loved Eli so much, that I was the perfect mom for him, and that she was sure he would grow up to do great things. “Just hang in there, honey,” she said.
Then, in November 2020, we gathered as a family on a Zoom call. Did Alexander Graham Bell imagine this future for his technology? Images of a whole person soaring effortlessly through the air to fill a visual square for other squares of people with ears and eyes to behold?
We received the news that this really was it for her. Again she lay prone, lightly covered over with a hospital sheet, feet protruding, her hands clutching the sheet and fisting together over her heart. There was nothing left to do; the cancer had settled deep in her bones, and like a lion leaping for the jugular, it slashed her throat to bits. She could hardly emit sound. Her vocal cords turned from velveted tapestries to scrub brushes, the abrasions scraping away at her lovely soprano. Phone calls became nearly impossible for her to bear.
So, when do I call my mom?
Never, now. I try to. Instinctively, I pick up the phone; she is still on my favorites list. I have four saved messages I’ll never be able to delete. They end with her cheery, “Love you, hun, thanks, bye-bye,” her voice crackling through the recorded airwaves, cracking a little on the bye.
During my first few prayers after she passed away, I felt like she was somehow on the other end. It was as if God rerouted the prayer because They knew she was the one I was really trying to dial. I kept forcefully pulling the numbered circles all the way to the end, anxiously waiting for them to bounce frenetically backward, begging her to answer. Mom, come here. I need you. I want you.
Kirsten Burningham is a first-year graduate student at Brigham Young University studying British modern literature. Her research interests include ecological and motherhood studies. She teaches a first-year writing course for the university and delights in helping (often reluctant) students develop into passionate communicators. Outside of her on-campus work, Kirsten and her husband, Steve, have five children, and together they love to hike, read, and explore the world. (Mt. Kilimanjaro is next).
(Art) Samantha Snyder is a mixed media artist who was born and raised in the Central Valley of California. After graduating from Brigham Young University, she spent the next several years teaching elementary school in Texas. She is currently working on an MFA in Studio Art at BYU. Her artwork is greatly inspired by her and her family’s time residing in the Pacific West. Her work consists of a variety of media, including collage, artists books and prints. Samantha currently resides in Utah Valley with her husband and 3 children.