Photo: My great grandfathers Will (left) and John putting the world to rights. Connecticut, approximately 1987.
My family has always been spread across the country. When I was little, we moved away from my mother’s side in the Northeast to Wisconsin. My father’s side of the family lived in Kentucky. We had no relatives within 500 miles. And for a while, we didn’t have any friends either.
On Christmas day, I’d open my eyes to a sea of presents, despite my mother’s modest resources. She must’ve saved all year to give me that moment in the morning. Then, once the last gift was opened, the phone calls would start.
We’d usually begin with Granny Mary and Grandpa Jim in Kentucky, continue to Aunt Carol and Uncle Tony in Connecticut, and then on to Grammy up in Maine. Last was Will, my great grandfather. You didn’t have a short conversation with Will. You dialed 10-10-321 (leave a comment if you know what that is), punched in the rest of the digits, and connected to Stratford, Connecticut.
My part of the conversation was generally short. I remember he would always tell me at the end, “Pay attention in school, and learn all you can!” Will had worked as a trapper and later in a factory making asbestos brakepads. He did not have the opportunity to go to college. But he clearly wanted something different for us.
Even into his 80’s and 90’s, he read widely about ancient man, mammoths, and astronomy. In different circumstances, he might’ve been a professor. For me, he was a kindly grandfather. Maybe that’s enough.
Then, I’d hand him back to my mom. She would stand near the receiver, ever closer to hanging up, but the conversation would continue like that for hours, or so it seemed. I wondered when we might ever watch a movie or play.
After about 4 hours, they’d finally run out of steam and call it a night.
Those calls always felt like a marathon, but they also gave us a wonderful feeling of connectedness to a family spread far and wide. We didn’t have the money to fly to visit anyone, but we did what we could do. This year, a lot of people will be finding ways to connect without being in person. I can tell you it’s possible and it can be truly satisfying and joyful.
Many of the people we called then are gone now. Some remain. They’ll be on my list to call this Friday. And I’m adding someone new: my mom, whom I cannot safely go see this year. Maybe we will be on the line for 4 hours. If so, that’s fine with me.