A Three-Minute Mom

Had been talking long distance with my mom when the line abruptly went dead. Without having to think, I redialed the number - my own first telephone number, unchanged in 46 years. She answered at once.

"Were my three minutes up?" I asked, only half joking.

Mom no longer rigorously observes the three-minute rule, but her use of long distance remains conservative. In the 1950s and '60s, virtually all her conversations to her own distant parents were three minutes long or less. Beyond that time frame, the rates changed and steepened. I remember watching the second hand on the big kitchen wall clock as it swept toward the 12 on its third time around. My mother would already be winding down the conversation without a word or nod from me. Using the Quaker way of speaking, as always with her family, she'd say, "I'll call thee next week," and settle the phone into its cradle just as the second hand nudged 12.

When I was very young I'd wonder what would happen if the clock beat her for once. Would the phone burst into flames? Emit an ear-splitting warning siren? Would the police or phone-company officials rush in to arrest her? I never had the chance to find out.

It wasn't a matter of not being able to afford the indulgence of a four- or five-minute call. My dad made a good middle-class salary and could absorb that. But growing up in the Depression had made economizing a habit for Mom. She brought that habit to marriage and motherhood, nurtures it now as a grandparent. She's eased up on the three-minute rule, but still keeps the calls within respectable limits - usually under four or five minutes, regardless of who's footing the bill. If we grown children want to use precious seconds of our calls home putting young Ben or Tim, little Hanna or Margaret on the line, that's fine. But the clock ticks on.

We have learned to exercise ploys to keep her with us. "Oh, just one more thing!" spoken with excited promise, as she begins winding down, can add a minute or two, especially if we really have something juicy to add.

"I got her to talk for over five minutes last week," I once bragged to my brother David. Casting sibling rivalry aside, he acknowledged the coup.

Mom herself sees the humor in this particular expression of her thrift. "If you've got a problem, talk fast," she quips. It's a tongue-in-cheek warning none of us take seriously. We know from experience that any real need to talk will not be clocked, even if the call comes crackling from overseas. But she draws the line at simply shooting the breeze at so much per minute, at least for more than a few minutes each week.

Economics may have been the root of her discomfort with long-winded telephoning, but there is more to it than that. She looks upon the phone as a poor substitute for personal presence, an instrument for checking up on, not chatting. She uses it to touch base with people she loves and cares about, to gather assurances that all is well. Even her local calls tend to be brief.

I RECALL her morning calls to the small apartment where my widowed grandfather (her father-in-law) lived to see how his night went; calls to dentists for appointments; to other mothers to check something about school or Scouts; invitations to neighborhood picnics and canasta parties extended or accepted. What I can't remember is her ever hunkering down for a long local gossip over the telephone. With her best friend and closest confidante right next door, she didn't have to. After 50 years as neighbors, the path between their doors is as heavily traveled as any fiber-optic cable in the country - and it's a line that has never gone dead.

My mother's approach to the telephone has come to make more and more sense to me. I seem to have absorbed by osmosis some of her distaste for drawn-out phone calls. After a certain point, even with my best friend on the other end of the line, I find myself shutting down, mentally disconnecting from the disembodied conversation. It takes more than three minutes, but like Mom, I ultimately object to the receiver at my ear, and I have a conservative view of telecommunications on a time-cost basis. So long as postage stamps are sold, I am not likely to fax or e-mail anyone my thoughts.

I hope my son will rub my nose in that one day. I hope he'll push me to communicate with him by keeping me on whatever line technology has strung by the time he's grown, and perhaps many miles distant.

It would serve me right.

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