I often cram a maternal phone call into my eight-minute, post-work walk from subway to apartment. It is one of the few times during the work week when I am truly alone, undisturbed by the niggling demands of unanswered e-mail; when I'm able to push aside my frustration that I'm not getting home early enough to have a relaxed evening with my husband and that I haven't laid eyes on my best friend since March.
Before my parents retired from their medical practices earlier this year, my mother was without fail home to receive these mid-evening phone calls. She and my father have always eaten geriatrically early, so I would catch them while they were watching DVR'd episodes of the previous evening's Colbert Report. Sometimes they would pull the slightly annoying but also adorable move of getting on the phone at the same time, and I would tell them about the pieces I was working on, the funny thing that had just happened at our yuppie supermarket (punchline: "That's my kale!"), why they really should be watching Mad Men.
When I would ask them what was going on at home, my mom's response was almost always the same: "Oh, nothing new."
But the other week, when I called home on a sleepy Tuesday evening, a strange thing happened: No one answered. This was odd—someone usually picks up by the third ring. I called my mother's office line to see if she might be holed up there, but no dice. Finally I called my Dad's cell phone. (My mother, a confirmed Luddite, at least when it comes to phones, never answers hers.) When he didn't pick up, either, I finally found myself leaving a message. "Where are you?" I said pleadingly into my BlackBerry. "I have a question about health insurance," I added, my voice trailing off at the end of the sentence.
When my mother called back a few hours later, I could hear a muffled din in the background, punctuated by deep voices and the sound of glasses clinking. "Where are you?" I asked, trying to sound merely curious, rather than irked and confused. "Oh, your father and I are out at a bar with his swim-team buddies." A bar? On a school night? Buddies? The mom I know gets tipsy after half a glass of wine. I could count on one hand the number of times this mom went out on a weeknight during my childhood. She's always been somewhat of a homebody and after a long day seeing patients, she always wanted to spend time with her family. "It's pretty loud here. I'll call you back tomorrow!" she said, brightly.
It didn't occur to me that this missed phone call would prove to be anything but a one-time occurrence. Until, a week or two after their boozy evening, I called my mom one weekend morning, another time when I was sure she would be around to chat—and again there was no answer. Even my dad's cell phone seemed to be off. I left another message, this one a little worried-sounding. "Where are you guys?" I asked, plantively. Later that day, my mother returned my call, "We're in Florida, Jessie! Visiting our friends for the weekend. We're down at the beach!"
What was this, Parents Gone Wild? Since when had they started just picking up whenever they felt like it and jetting down to Florida for fun in the sun like a couple of college students? My mother characteristically spends hours on end in her office, either seeing her psychiatric patients or futzing with Photoshop, perfecting the images she shoots in her spare time. She is not some aged beach bunny given to cavorting in the waves on the Gulf Coast. An audible "Harumph!" may have actually escaped my lips.
But I realized in my pique that I hadn't thought much about my mother's post-work life. If pressed, I would have conjured up an image of her sitting on the couch in my suburban childhood home, knitting—a quaint, antiquated picture of the retired matriarch that must have come from TV, as my mother hasn't picked up knitting needles since the crocheting craze of the '70s. In reality, my parents are ditching sleepy Westchester for the tweedy Upper West Side as soon as their house sells. Furthermore, she and my dad are in better physical shape than I am, spending an hour or two at the gym together each day and walking their moppet of a dog on long, leisurely strolls.
It occurred to me in that moment, on the phone with my mother in Florida, that perhaps I was jealous of her. She seemed so uncharacteristically breezy and unencumbered. Just as I am picking up more and more responsibility—a mentally consuming job, a husband, bills and wills, and, in the not-too-distant future, kids—my mom is selling all the furniture, throwing off her suburban shackles and tripping off into the sparkling sunlight. In fact, she reminds me of myself just a few years ago, when fresh out of college I first moved to New York City and spent my own evenings exploring various outerborough bars.
After acknowledging this twinge of jealousy, I reminded myself that my mom never got to have a beer-soaked early 20s, the way I did. She went to medical school straight out of college, was hitched by 24 and working long shifts as a resident at 26. She deserves a carefree youth—even if she will soon be buying her drinks with a senior discount. In the meantime, I will stop expecting her to answer my every call. And maybe next time she's thinking of getting a martini in Manhattan, she'll ask me to go with her.