So, there I was, at my grandmother’s side—a reunion twenty-one years in the making—when the phone atop the slippery hospital bed table rang us right out of our reminiscences. I reached over, handed Ella the receiver and, in an impulse of synesthetic kindness, turned to look out of the window, as if our ears could be as easily averted as our eyes. Unable to listen away, I could readily deduce the identity of the caller, both from my grandmother’s tone of voice and from the nature of her greeting. It was her daughter, my mother, on the line; and being so close to the phone made me wriggle in the chair I wished I had vacated instead of deputizing my eyes to take a hike.
I knew that, in a conciliatory gesture, grandmother would eventually pass the phone to me, and with it the onus to act polite in the absence of the kindness such an imposition was unlikely to inspire. You see, the last word exchanged between mother and myself had been a reference to the very spot of my anatomy I was now itching to shift.
During that fateful call, the relationship terminating vocable formed part of an expletive suggesting the inconceivable meeting of the listener’s glossa and the speaker’s gluteus maximus, as if what escapes us in our often less than choice utterances did not suffice to render the propinquity of kisser and keister conspicuous.
The posterior in question had been mine, or rather the figurative proffering of same. Thereafter, a silence lasting a quarter century, not counting the telling incommuniqués that are the occasional scratches on the surface of glossy picture postcards—those ocular proofs of our inability or unwillingness to hear out whatever say others might still be having it in them to impart.
My gut feeling was to sit still, now that the time to steal away had passed; but Oma had gone through enough, especially of late, to be made to endure such a display of filial disaffection. So, there in the impersonality of a hospital room, I talked to my mother for the first time in what amounted to nearly half of my father’s lifetime—except that the voice I heard did not sound like the one I thought of as my mother’s.
The momentary lack of recognition bespoke our estrangement. Now, I hardly expected the phone cord to reach right down into my navel; but, as it turns out, there is nothing intrinsically umbilical about a mother’s vocal cords, either. That I might one day struggle to match my aural memory of mother with the vocal presence of her had, barring dementia, never occurred to me before.
The regional Rhineland accent seemed far more pronounced to me who had been brought up by her speaking High German. The timbre, too, was altered. The voice was lower now, as if to compensate for the robustness that had once been wanting in the listener, her only son, whose androgynous adolescence had called traditional definitions of manhood into question years ago. The tone was as jovial as a pat on the back, a nudge, a kick in the ribs or some such gesture standing in for an embrace. The sense of the words I scarcely took in, so taken aback was I by their sound.
Had I really crawled that far from my cradle no longer to know by ear the woman who bore me? What was that, triumph? A validation of selfhood? Or was it an indictment? The conceit of “mother tongue” never sounded more foreign to me.