When the phone rang

Summer mornings in a small, narrow, Milwaukee flat, I’d sleep in a bit when I wasn’t in school, and spend my summer days bicycling through the city streets with friends, reading, or sitting on the front porch, taking in the sun, summer days so precious in the Midwest.

Every morning at 9, I heard the phone ring on the heavy black rotary phone that sat in the alcove in the small hallway that separated the bedrooms and the bathroom with its claw foot tub. Mom hurried from the kitchen to the hall, and from my room I could hear my Dad’s deep voice, loud above the noises in the factory, as he talked to my mother on his break from work. He must have made sure he had a dime in his pocket every day to be able to call home. He talked; she listened, saying a few words now and then. Then she’d go back to her housework, and the house was quiet again.

Later each morning, the phone in the alcove rang again. Mom walked from the kitchen to the hallway again, this time to answer the call from her sister, my Auntie Anne. Anne talked; Mom listened, answering with a word or two. Years later, I’d learn that Auntie Anne was a victim of domestic abuse, but I expect she didn’t talk about that, even with her sister. It will be a mystery that continues in my life as to whether my mother knew. Like all of us, I was surrounded by family secrets, unspoken agreements that had been alive before my days and will be alive when I’m gone.

Mom hung up the phone and returned to her work. Sometimes, she’d call to me to come out of my room, to go outside – it was summer! Or she’d see me reading in the big arm chair next to the door to the front porch, calling again to me to go outside – it was summer! The air is heavy in the Midwest, heavy with humidity and with secrets.