Debra Dickerson

Debra Dickerson

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 7 1997 12:30 AM

Debra Dickerson

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       Widowed and 70, my mother scurries home before dark, asked for a security system for Christmas, sets booby traps for burglars. She agonizes over whether the porch light will attract or repel prowlers. Watching her scuttle fearfully from the car to the house is a sight I have to look away from. Both frightened and furious whenever someone is carjacked in her driveway or ambushed at midday, she recounts each murderous detail while I grope for words that will reassure her. "What are decent folks supposed to do?" she asks after each atrocity. My talk of decreasing FBI statistics held no balm, so she came up with her own. The cure for violence in America? A cell phone. No militia member ever wanted a gun as militantly as she wants a cell phone. In her mind, a bad guy will lunge and she'll speed-dial the police station to tell on him. He'll hang his head in shame as she conferences in his mother and his minister. Justice will take its course on speakerphone. I got her one and pray it gives her peace of mind.
       She just picked it up and needs me on the line while she programs her secret weapon; it beeps and crackles while she half-listens to me. A former Mississippi sharecropper with an eighth-grade education, she's convinced she can't understand anything important. I have diplomas on the wall; I'm a genius. I have to stand near her while she uses an ATM; otherwise, she queues for a teller. Today, though, I have to chat since I'm invisible. So she presses buttons and I babble.
       "Debbie, it says, 'Depress the PRGM key on left side of display.' " She reads haltingly since she thinks she can't possibly be getting it right.
       "Yes, ma'am," I say.
       " 'Depress.' That's just 'press,' right?"
       "Uh hmm."
       "The PGRM key--'program'?"
       "That's right."
       "It's on the left side?"
       "Yes, ma'am. Do you see it?"
       "Yes. P-R-G-M. There's a P-G-R button, but it's on the right side ..." She pauses hopefully. I say nothing. "They don't mean that one do they?"
       "No, ma'am."
       Long pause.
       "Now, press it, Ma."
       I hear congratulatory beeping.
       "Ooooh," she croons, amazed.
       If the phone malfunctions mechanically, she'll pry off its cover, tinker with its innards while making cornbread, and repair it with a crochet needle. That's manual labor, something she can do. But recording a voice-mail message? Not without prayer.
       Now she's trying to make her inaugural cell-phone call, me in one ear, her safe new future in the other. She's excited and giggly. I cannot persuade her to ditch me and play with the cell phone without training wheels. So, I babble about O.J., a favorite subject of hers. This distracts her and she tunes in to hear her fancy lawyer daughter using words like "problematic," "evidentiary issues," and "money damages as a surrogate for criminal justice."
       "That's right," Mama agrees energetically. I can see her head nod once, implacably. "He won't get into heaven."

Debra Dickerson is a contributing editor to U.S. News & World Report.