A couple of times after I moved to Pittsburgh for college, I flew home to New York without telling my mom. Her apartment building had a pay phone in the lobby. On these occasions I would call her from the lobby, pretending still to be in Pittsburgh. In the middle of the conversation I’d say, “Hold on a second.” Then, leaving the phone off the hook (but having arranged with the doorman to hang it up for me after a few minutes), I’d sprint from the lobby down a long hallway to the rear staircase, bound up to the third floor, and ring her doorbell. I’d greet her with a “Surprise!” and a goofy smile, and she’d greet me with a delighted hug.
Thanksgiving was a good time to do this trick, because it was plausible to claim not wanting to travel on Thanksgiving, and because Thanksgiving is a great family-togetherness holiday, and because my mom’s birthday was always right around Thanksgiving. In fact today’s the day she would have been seventy-four.
After I surprised her this way two or three times she started asking me, “Are you really down in the lobby?” whenever I’d call from Pittsburgh to say “wish I could be there” on some holiday or other. She was always disappointed when I convinced her that I really was far away still. In later years, after college, I did this once or twice more, only with the advent of ubiquitous cell phones I didn’t have to arrange anything with the doorman, or sprint, or even say “Hold on a second.” I could call her from right outside her apartment door, and ring her doorbell right in the middle of a sentence. Convenient — but I liked the lower-tech, higher-effort version better.
Happy birthday, Mom. This is the story we would be remembering together if you were still around. I miss you.