Friday, September 27, 2013

Reflections of a Listener

Reflections of a Listener

To begin with, the title of my story is probably wrong.   I’ll have to think about that as I begin my scribbling. Now, I’m writing this to an audience of all ages but who will read the entire story depends on his or her cultural upbringing.

The premise for this scribbling is that I’ve been inclined to talk a lot most of my life, not always with my mind in proper gear. But there was a time in my youth when I was a quiet listener to the conversations of my elders.  “Who cares,” you are probably thinking. May I remind you that you’re reading this for free?  It wouldn’t raise a dime if today’s dime had any value. I’ve already concluded that won’t make it an “app.”

 I was prompted to this writing by my Sis Dott who called today. I’m almost 73 and she’s pushing up against 80. We both still have our wits about us, except that we habitually call someone by the wrong name(s) until we get it right.  I’m telling the world on her, because I’m sure that she will admit it if corrected by the offended party.  I inherited this faulty name calling habit from my loving grandmother, Mamimaw. She’s in heaven and I hope will call me by my right name when I get there.

Anyway, our conversation drifted around to discussing our perplexity with today’s “I phone” culture. I pause here to admit that my PC Word program auto-corrected my spelling of I Phone. Dott told me that she has a Smart phone but hasn’t allowed it to be grafted to her hand as yet.  She turns it off on Sunday in order to talk with the Lord the old fashioned way, and may not turn it back on until mid-week, perplexing her grown kids. Admittedly, I’m a “dumb” phone user. I won’t text and can’t (won’t) take a photo to send along to someone who wasn’t expecting it. I would prefer the old (ancient) analog version; black with a dial, a short cord slaving the receiver and its user and hanging on the kitchen wall.  Hey, that old analog phone is perfectly safe from extreme solar flares and electromotive pulse (EMP), should a nuclear bomb explode over the good old USA. Not so good a thing for the digital world of ever-shrinking yet advancing microelectronics….your cell phones and App devices would be toasted…sorry kids.

Dott and I readily agreed that attempting a face to face visit with our younger kids is to compete with the darn phone that is apparently glued to their palms; their fingers flying on little buttons that I can’t see and their eyes glued to a little screen designed “for their eyes only.” They are doing their own thing, having habitual and incessant communications with someone not in the room with us. A psychologist recently asserted that today’s generation will have latent anxiety problems resulting from their self-imposed need to be “in touch” with the “In crowd.” I’ll continue my ragging on the youth in a few moments but now must return to the premise of this story; my being a quiet listener at one time.  If this gets too heavy for you, skip it and turn on Oprah, Suburgatory, Teen Wolf or 90210.  Yes, I got the names of these TV shows from Google. I admit to dabbling with the digital world…but not in the presence of good company.

After my dad died in 1955, my twin brother Jay and I, then teenagers, bounced around between homes of relatives. Having eaten our brother Bill out of house and home, we became the extra mouths at Sis Dott’s home, competing with her husband John and their kids for the extra fried eggs and last piece of bacon. Jay and I were real girl crazy, so we played in the high school band…I’m told that today's bands are “chick magnets.”

 Well, back to Dott’s home.  I never shut up my teenage ramblings, especially when John was trying to watch Alfred Hitchock on the 13 inch black and white. Mischievously fidgeting with TV rabbit ears to deliberately blur the picture while running my mouth, I was often chased out of the house by John and the door locked behind me till the TV went off. Dott would say that I’m stretching things a bit here and she’d be right.  Eventually, and to avert their bankruptcy over food bills, I drifted on to Mamimaw’s home in Greenville Mississippi. It was there that I learned to listen to the conversations of others. I was age 16.

Mamimaw lived in an old antebellum home built by her father. It was actually a duplex before such a thing was known by modern architects.  Her cousin Maude and husband Jimmy lived in one side and she occupied the other. A central wall divided the two units and there was a pass-thru nook in that wall that housed a telephone…black, dial tone and short receiver cord.   I’d be safe in guessing that her phone bill was about $3 a month, if no long-distance calls were made.   The old black phone with a rotary dial weighed about 5 pounds and sat atop a skinny round table. The receiver alone weighed a pound was multi-purpose, as it could serve as a club in the event of an intruder!  Its coiled receiver cord was very long so the phone could be shared thru a custom wall opening with Maude.  Maude, from her side of the duplex, would holler the phone number she wanted to be dialed by Mamimaw.  Are you getting the picture?

Life with Mamimaw was generally quiet, except when I blasted out “Night Train” on an old detuned saxophone that I found in a closet. Her 1st rule…no sax at night. I was still a talker and my cousin Jimmy learned to obediently nod his head to my nonsense while he listened to baseball on his radio…hard wired, black, 10 pounds heavy and plugged into the porch AC outlet. I loved Jimmy but he would not let me smoke his cigars. Ok, OK, I’ll get to the point of this scribbling.

The ritual after supper was to retire to Mamimaw’s front porch. It was screened in and divided on 2 sides just like the inside of the home.  An old but sturdy metal glider was our seat and the old tree stump in the front yard was in the foreground of our view of Broadway and the big old homes across that divided boulevard. Crickets competed with buzzing mosquitoes for our night sounds. The protocol was to quietly enter the porch and be seated and to glide quietly until a conversation would begin. Parties from either side of the divided porch screen could initiate the evenings talk. It was dark but electricity wasn’t to be wasted on a porch light, so there was at best the faint image of bodies present illuminated through a glass windowed front door by a 40 watt light in the foyer.  When Jimmy puffed on his cigar, the red glow added a little light and was accompanied by the aromatic smoke that wafted through the screen to our noses.   Maude would scold him if he puffed too hard or too often.  He claimed that it keep mosquitos away.

For the first week or so, I was bored and went digging for my non-existent I Phone. Eventually, I caught onto the “meter” of the elder’s conversations and learned a thing or two about politeness and civility of communication that was ingrained in my elders. A typical evening’s conversation went something like this:

Maude: “Florence,” she called Mamimaw by that name, “I was thinking about Margaret today.”

Long pause before Mamimaw replied:  “I was fond of Margaret also but haven’t thought of her lately.  How many years since she passed away now? And, did you ever meet her cousin Gail?”

Maude, after a pause: “Seems she passed away in 1930 or so. It was while she lived in Memphis, I believe, or was it Jackson?” 

Pause, then Mamimaw would add: “Jackson, as I recall. She was just a few blocks from Mabel on Birch Street.”  She wore that red hat everywhere she went, you know.

Pause, then Maude elaborated: “I suppose you’re right. No, I don’t recall meeting Gail, although Margaret often spoke of her. She was older than Gail by a few years, I suppose.” Gail’s father was a butcher in Jackson, Oh yes, now I recall, it was Jackson. Margaret finished high school there, I think she told me. She went on to nursing school in Memphis, as I recall.

Jimmy seldom spoke but added humorous words muffled behind his cigar which he proudly puffed alive, much to Maude’s chagrin.  She missed his mumbled comment about Margaret’s red hat or Maude would have smacked him.

Mamimaw made no reply. Enough had been said on that point. It would have been impolite for her to probe Maude’s recollection of Gail. After a pause, she might begin a new discussion. Or not. Just sitting quietly and sharing the evening was sufficient.

 Jimmy was the one to break up the party, as he headed to bed mumbling “Night all.” Maude would confirm that he put his cigar out complexly before he was given leave of her company.  I took the opportunity to excuse myself and continue looking for my IPhone.

Through my bedroom window screen, I could hear the soft but muffled words of the ladies another half hour or so before they bid each other a good night.  Folks today might call such muffled talk “white noise,” to which would I would drift off to sleep. There was no sense looking for my IPhone, as all lights were off when Mamimaw headed to bed.

The conversation wasn’t important to me but the civility and politeness of listener to speaker became very apparent. There was this gentle communication and sharing of the slightly cooling evening air that made up their evenings. Their voices were never raised and the subject never as important as the exchange of memories and mutuality of minds on small, almost forgotten matters. Their words seemed to waft between screened spaces to gently break the night’s darkness.  There was the caring for even small talk that made the evening pass.  These were tender, gracious times for my elders; times for me to remember.

In all truthfulness, I have remained a talker and often interrupt others in conversation or blurt out some useless point like a bull in a china closet. Apparently, I have forgotten the valued lessons of evenings spent on Mamimaw’s front porch.  Thanks Sis Dott for your call and the occasion to remind myself of gentler times.

I’ll skip my planned ragging on the youth and yield to their “digitized” culture of “on-screen friends.” Perhaps, in their late years, they might recall fond memories of conversations in their own way.  I hope that a few pleasant memories of gentle, face-to-face conversations will be theirs to savor, when their aged eyes can’t focus digital screens of their IPhone and they must rely on implanted digital memory chips with a directory of filterable messages.  I’m not taking any bets on it.