Sunday, April 08, 2007

316-659-2906 R.I.P.

I've called my parents every week, more or less, since I left their house more or less twenty years ago. When their house was also my house, I called home innumerable times — for permissions and rides and excuses, among other things. I've dialed the number so many times (sometimes actually using my babysitter's heavy, Bakelite rotary telephone) that it was usually difficult to tell someone what the number actually was. I still know it so well that I simply let my body remember the shape of the number in the keys; my brain has long since decided that it doesn't need to be involved in that transaction.

The number no longer works.

My parents have just completed their move from the sparse Kansas town that they've lived in for about forty years. It was where I was born, and where my brother first started remembering things. They arrived with little, and the town, though fairly small, had much to give them. They put down thick roots, worked and moved up, became a good part of the community. My father, a lawyer, came out to the southwest part of the state to join a small firm, eventually going into business for himself in a log-cabin office he shared with the town optometrist. (It's perhaps sometimes overlooked that in small towns key services are often identified with the few people who offer them, as in the town optometrist, or dentist, or doctor. When that person goes, people have to set out on the highway to fill a tooth.) My mother taught school and took care of us. My brother and I went to school, and (more or less) let my parents take care of us.

The whole town took care of us, in fact. My brother and I had a movie-worthy childhood: We didn't lock any of our doors, whether inside or out, to our house or cars; we knew (and had been in the kitchens of) nearly everyone within several blocks of us; during the summer when we were older we would fall out the front door in the morning and magically materialize for meals throughout the day. We shot baskets incessantly in a neighbor's driveway until the day's light gave out. A doctor and his wife lived across our street a little before it ran from asphalt to dirt, and when I slammed my finger in a car door, my mother and I found him working in his shop; he quickly yanked off the hanging fingernail and pushed my head between my legs until I could stand without wobbling. We had a tree house in our backyard, built by my grandfather and hoisted into the joint of a giant cottonwood. (It even had a hand-made rope ladder for a while.)

It's a precondition for nostalgia that what one is wistful for no longer exists, and every adult’s childhood can by definition be nothing but a toybox of recollections, however lovely. But the town I grew up in no longer exists, too. It's a farm community, founded by a railroad baron, without a natural center or industry to keep it vibrant. Nearby Dodge City has the packing plants and a critical mass of population; other smallish dots on the map in the surrounding counties have seed companies or family legacies to keep decent jobs and money constant. My home town, having none of this, is drying up and dying off. Most young people have little reason to stay and fewer reasons to arrive in the first place, and my parents' friends who did so much for the community— the dry cleaner and fire chief (not to mention town Santa Claus), the principal, the optometrist, the pharmacist — have died or retired or moved closer to their kids. Some have been replaced; some haven't. My family has now completely joined the list of those who have left.

As I come up from my train home and the World Trade Center PATH station, I think about the phone in my pocket. Spring hasn't taken hold yet, even this late into April, and all the concrete framing out this work in progress holds the cold all the way up to Church Street. Many (including both my mother and father) have numbers that can ring on us nearly wherever we are. On these steps I could be asked to bring home more eggs, or I could help my wife begin to unravel the knot of her day. I am always at home in this way, as are those I care about, and I like that.

My parents’ move hasn’t sent me off my axis as I thought it might; too much has changed about that town and about me. And about phones and their numbers, too, I suppose. Mom and dad tell me that their new number — whatever it is — will ring over the Internet.

What they say is true: you can't go home again. Who knew that you can't call home again either?


Anonymous said...

I liked your post, it reminded me of something. I used to remember their number this way. Galva's numbers started with 654 so the 659 made sense because the 5 and 4 from Galva came to 9. And Midway USA....the shape of the last four digits was symmetric on the keypad, split through the middle.

By the way, next year for Easter what do you think about this. You all come to see your parents then take a day trip down to the farm. I will have eggs hidden all over "the yard" and Q and the Boy can enjoy really hunting for eggs and not ultimate fighting on a blue tarp.


Anonymous said...

I certainly enjoyed reading "316-659-2906 R.I.P." and sent it on to Randy and Janet. We are enjoying Hutchinson very much.