The Phone Call

Cheryl Ferguson Bernini

© Copyright 2018 by 
Cheryl Ferguson Bernini

Photo of Cheryl and her mother.

My mom, Anne, was diagnosed with a rare heart condition when I was 15 and a sophomore in high school. Due to this illness, she was always speaking with a doctor or laboratory. What you are about to experience is one of those conversations. As you can see from the picture, my mom was a genuinely fun-loving woman, and we had a great time together while she was here. 

It was shaping up to be an atypical Saturday. Working and studying full-time filled my calendar to overflowing. Personal ‘me’ time was counted in seconds. I considered myself lucky if I found a few spare moments lingering behind, not being hoarded by other commitments. But this morning, I was able to sleep in, if you can consider sleeping an extra hour something special. I didn’t have anywhere to run. There weren't any pressing appointments or due dates to which I needed to attend. My plan was to sit down to a lovely little breakfast to plan my tranquil and free Saturday. Boy, how wrong can one person be?

Dixie, my cat, woke me up with a paw to the face a lick to the inner corner of an eye. Rolling over I checked the clock and realized she had let me sleep longer than usual and that my mom must have already fed her. And with this, I was already feeling lucky. Sitting up in my nice cozy cocoon of a bed I felt the wear and tear of my youthful 22 years. I raised my arms, slapped my hands together, and gave my torso a good long needed stretch up to the ceiling. Not jumping out of bed, as was the norm, I slung my legs over the side and felt my feet touch the floor. Not really ready or wanting to get up I unconsciously made the move, or else I would probably still find myself in the same position.
My dad had finished the basement, and I made myself an apartment-like room for which I paid rent. Since my mom was a first generation American from Italian descent she shopped and cooked for the likes of an army. When I wanted something special to eat I would buy it myself, but in essence, we all ate together. Because if not, my parents could feed the entire neighborhood. Luckily living in the cellar had its benefits since sound didn't travel down extrememly well, and I had no idea what the two of them could possibly be up to at that hour.

Slowly I climbed the stairs that led to the kitchen. My parents, I discovered, were already on the move. My dad, a retired mechanic, was already in the garage and at work on a project. He rarely woke up later than seven in the morning. My mom had worked at the local telephone company but left when she was pregnant with my older sister, and then never had the opportunity to return to an outside work environment. She used her expertise to run the household and to help my dad with his auto body business. I nicknamed her the Italian Tazmanian Devil. It was as if she was a tiny, energetic tornado that whipped through the house. And that morning, she was already spinning.

We said our good mornings and I breathed in the sweet aroma of coffee as I passed the pot that was still switched on. Ahhh, a lovely cup of hot joe that I could sip on instead of gulping down while on the run. Now, to think of something to eat. I settled on an English muffin. Taking one from the package, I sliced the thin, store-bought bread and popped it into the forty-year-old toaster that my parent’s received as a wedding gift. Nothing ever toasted as well as that machine. I poured myself a jumbo-sized coffee and took in the vapor as if it could save my life. I made a place at the table with the mug and a tall glass of orange juice. I added the butter, strawberry jam, a napkin, and I awaited my toasted delight.

As I was preparing to sit down and enjoy my bounty, my mom asked if I would mind if she shared the table with me. She had some calls to make and work to do and she had ample room on the dining room table to spread everything out. Since she had worked for the local telephone company we had phone jacks for a landline installed in every room of the house (remember, this work was done back in the ‘50’s when it was unheard of. At the time, you were charged for each outlet. This was the impetus behind the Battle of the Phone Jacks. But that is a story for another time.). I was more than happy for her to join me.

She dragged out the desk-style rotary phone from the bedroom and placed it on the table to her right. Along with it were files and envelopes. She was finally ready to get down to business when she sat across from me, with her pen, notebook, and to-do list, in front of her. When I was 15 my mom was diagnosed with a rare heart condition. She was given five years to live; but due to her stubborn persistence to finding a cure and her sheer-will and determination to continue to live, she surprised everyone by living 10 years with the illness. And it was because of her ill health that she was in constant contact with either doctors or hospital personnel or laboratories.

As she picked up the phone and started dialing, over every click of each number she spun, she looked at me, eyes peering over the rims of her glasses that sat low on the bridge of her nose, and said, “I have to call Burt Labs. Dr. Chandler wants me to go for some new test.”

I nodded my understanding while still lingering in a comatose state.

She was already seven years into her condition and she had built a rapport with the owners of the lab that she frequented for blood work and such. The couple who started it was from the area and it truly was, at the time, a family operation. Mr. and Mrs. Burt, or one of the two, were always present on site.
Good morning! Mr. Burt? Hello, this is Anne Ferguson. How are you?” And, the polite conversation and small talk ensued.

As I was taking a bite from my crispy crumpet, as I felt my teeth breaking through and the sweetness beginning to ooze on the tip of my tongue, she just had to do it. She just had to go and do it. Her eyes met mine, straight on.

Mr. Burt, Dr. Chandler wants me to have a Uric Acid Test. Do you know what a Uric Acid Test is?” Her voice raised a half-tone at the end.

But, that question was not posed to a professional to give her an expert explanation. That question was posed in a voice as if Mr. Burt, the proprietor of a lab that held his name, had no clue as for what she was asking.

I stopped mid-bite. Our eyes remaining fixed in a stare.

Still with the morsel unchewed, I was perplexed, to say the least, and that is what my expression conveyed at the moment. And, my mom. She understood. Perfectly.

I was able to sputter out, “What in the world are you asking? Do you not think that Mr. Burt knows what a Uric Acid Test is?”

And from this point on, my peaceful morning and that phone call all seemed to go downhill. I have a flaw and it’s a big one. My facial expressions give away every possible emotion. And since those muscles have thoughts all their own, they render me helpless when trying to hide any type of feeling. This is exactly what happened that morning. I wasn’t saying much. I didn't have to. My face was doing all the talking. I knew we were in for a ride when my mom started to crinkle up her nose and eyes and her head started to tilt. Beginning with only a twitch, it evolved to where she was almost convulsing. Yet her gaze stayed with me, which was probably her undoing in the end.

I could hear Mr. Burt’s voice through the phone handset, continuing his explanation that landed on a deaf ear. My mom desperately tried to regain composure. I didn’t help the cause since I continued to eat my breakfast while throwing out comments under my breath, but not so much so that my mom couldn’t hear them.

I cannot believe you! You’ve been going to that lab for how many years now?”

How could you ask him that? He’s the owner of the damn lab, woman!”

Do you not think that Mr. Burt, the owner and operator of the lab, knows more about that test than you?”

Yes, I just kept going. Looking back, it was as if a grouchy old man entered my soul. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t stop. And, slowly my mom’s head started to fall. Her face now turned a stunning shade of red. Eyes, shut so tight as if she was frightened and didn’t want to look. Her stifled giggles becoming more pronounced out and out laughter. As I watched from across the table it was as if the entire episode was happening in slow-motion. Ever so gently her head slid down until her right cheek laid on the table. The receiver placed next to her right arm, still with the voice of poor Mr. Burt coming through loud and clear. She was a puddle. It was a puddle of mom.

Ohhh, what are you doing? You still have Mr. Burt on the line!” And, she remained there, laughing.

Oh my God. Get yourself together and pick up the phone! Oh my God, pick up the phone!”

My commands went unfollowed. The woman was a mess. She could barely raise her head from the table.

It seemed as if a lifetime had passed, and probably longer for her than for me. But she was finally able to find some composure, and she picked up her head and the telephone. It was difficult to do, but she finished the call. Turning her head to not catch me in her sight, she side-eyed me. When she noticed she could still see me, she turned almost completely around.

The phone call has been completed. The handset has been replaced in the cradle. Now enters my dad from the garage. The squeak of the kitchen door opening warned us of his arrival.

What is going on in here?”

The poor man has arrived and entered into what he believes to be an argument between my mom and myself. It could not have been a more apropos point when he came in because my mom was just hanging up when she said to him, “I’m going to strangle her.”

With that, my dad is thoroughly confused. He truly had the notion that what he was hearing from outside was us yelling at one another. Tears are streaming down my mom’s still rosy face. I turn around, still trying to get through breakfast, and ask, “do you know what your wife just did?”

Taking a break from his work, my dad grabs a glass of iced tea and takes a seat at the table with us. We now try to recount what happened in the last ten minutes. Laughter has gotten the better of both of us and it took us almost an hour to convey the story; the comedy known as mom not being able to make a phone call. When we were able to move on to new business, I went for a second cup of coffee and sat back down. I was sipping the brew when my mom passed by, shaking her head and still chuckling, and gave me a loving slap upside the back of my head.

Almost thirty years have passed since that fateful Saturday morning when that famous phone call to Burt Labs was placed. A day that lived in infamy while my parents were still alive and one that lives on and with me to this day. That phone call truly took on a life of its own. I have a thousand stories if I have one, of the humorous antics of my parents or the interactions between myself and them. But, this by far, the phone call to Burt Labs, is one that will make me laugh out loud, and laugh so hard that I cry, each and every time I tell it.

And, yes, she did finally did make that appointment for a Uric Acid Test! 

Hello, my name is Cheryl. I am an American expat living in Italy with my husband and four felines. Through my life, I have run the gambit working all sorts of jobs, but the last in America was in Information Systems. At the moment I live in a small Renaissance city where I tutor and teach English language courses, and I am also available for translations. Having written for the past 20 odd years I never gave myself the time to do anything with it. Over the past few years I finally arrived at a point where I decided that it was time to try; and, I took the new road. I have not had anything published at this time but I am looking forward to it one day, hopefully, sooner rather than later. I do have two projects that I am working on and would like to see something positive happen with both. One is a young adult murder mystery I am writing which takes place in Urbino, where I live. The second are picture books for children, illustrated by my husband, and written in both English and Italian. As for the rest, maybe one day I will sit down and write a memoir or two.

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