A Thin Place Phone Booth, My Mom, & The Accidental Juror
I confess that my novels' characters are sometimes inspired by real people in my life. Lynn Rose Edwards, who is the 'the accidental juror' in my new novel is patterned after my mom, Betty Lou. She passed away in September 2016 and it seems apt to re-post this blog post as The Accidental Juror is released in September 2022.
I used the term “thin place” in the dedication of my first novel, Whittled Away. I was referencing the US Soldier cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. The same cemetery that starts and ends the wonderful WWII movie, Saving Private Ryan. I was saying that a thin place means a physical location where the living can most easily feel a connection with the dead. A place where the gap, or the wall, or the river between those of us still breathing, and those gone, is--thin.
Churches and cemeteries come to mind. Battlefields are another. A thin place can be anywhere that has been the location of unexpected deaths caused by war or nature. Last month, NPR radio ran a story about a phone booth in Japan that has become a thin place. Yes, a phone booth.
The great tsunami of 2011 washed over 10,000 people out to sea. The bodies of many of those poor victims were never found.
A 70-year-old gardener lost three family members to the tsunami. His manner of grieving was to acquire an old phone booth and move it to his garden in sight of the coast. He put a black rotary dial phone set and a vase of flowers on the shelf in the booth. He began making regular visits to his new phone booth, to pick up the receiver and speak to his lost loved ones.
Sounds crazy, huh? Maybe not so much. Word spread about the phone booth by the sea, and people began to visit to “call” their own loved ones who’d been taken by the tsunami. The little glass and metal box became a sought-out, thin place.
A public radio station asked permission to tape some of the “conversations.” No one objected, and they discovered middle-aged men, who are normally highly restrained and not prone to showing emotion, crying as they told their lost ones that things are going well enough, but it’s hard without them. They updated the dead on the little things the living were doing, and confessed to their loved ones how much they are still missed. All that said while holding an old plastic phone to their ear, standing in a metal and glass box in a garden, looking at the ocean that had swept their loved ones away.
I wrote last month that my 91-year-old mother, Betty Lou, just passed away, a cancer victim. She was a grand lady, blessed with a long life. Mama’s passing was not unexpected or violent. She left us in a bed in a hospice hospital sometime in the wee hours of the morning. The kicker to me is that she died after I’d fallen asleep on the folding cot, just a few feet from her. The nurse had to wake me with the news. It happened sooner than we all thought, but…it was my watch, and I was sleeping.
If I were standing in that phone booth on the coast of Japan, I’d pick up the receiver, punch in the number 3-1779, our home phone number when I was kid, and talk to Mama one more time. I’d tell her we gave her a fine send-off at the church. I’d assure that her oldest son John spoke well at the service, and her daughter-in-law Nita sang Precious Lord, Take Me Home as she’d requested. I’d lovingly say that Nita sang with as much beauty, soul, and grace as any hymn was ever sung, which is true. I’d talk to her about the family gathering afterwards at her daughter’s Betsy’s house, where more stories were told, and that we raised glasses of wine to her. Betsy’s good wine, not the cheap stuff I buy.
Then, standing there in that phone booth, I’d grip that phone handle tighter, and I’d tell her that I still remember the day when I was twelve and she listened in on her bedroom phone extension to a phone call I got from the father of another kid. Men don’t call kids on the phone, and no doubt Mama was curious.
That morning, I’d had words and maybe a little shoving back and forth with this guy’s son during a summer day-camp where he and I were junior counselors. No doubt we both had been mouthy jerks, not good role models for the younger guys. Our sniping at each other continued on the bus ride home, and I ended up pulling off his new fancy hat he’d recently gotten at Six Flags Over Texas. Six Flags had just opened and the hat was showy evidence that he’d been there. It was one of those brightly-colored snap-brim jobs with his name stitched on the front and a fluffy feather stapled to the side. I still remember that hat. Anyway, I dropped it out the bus window somewhere on the other side of town from where we lived.
So, later that afternoon, his father called and lit into me about the hat. I remember I was scared and the man was being pretty abrasive and made the comment that he was a special deputy sheriff and could…at which point Mama calmly said, “Get off the phone, Phil.”
I hung up, and crept to her bedroom doorway to eavesdrop while my mother did her own Mama Grizzly impression to this guy who’d taken a step too far towards her cub. When she finished reaming out the man for threatening me, she hung up and said, “Philip, I know you’re listening. You WILL use your lawn mowing money to buy that a boy a new hat.” That was all she said to me, but she was probably was muttering under her breath, “Don’t be such a dumb-ass, Son. There’ll come a time when I won’t be around.”
I dug into my stash of crumpled lawn-mowing dollar bills, and the next day paid the kid for his damned hat.
Moving past that story, before I hung up on my phone call to Mama, I’d tell her I’m kicking myself that I wasn’t holding her hand at the end. Yeah, I was in the room, but most likely, I was snoring during her last breaths. I wasn’t right there next to her. I’d ask her to overlook that, if she could, and I know she would. Then, I’d probably awkwardly joke that I always did have trouble staying awake after ten at night, just like her.
Sorry to jerk on your heartstrings this way. I’m too old to carry on so about my mom’s passing. But, fair or not, you, gentle readers, just became my phone booth by the sea. Thanks.