Keep in Touch!
My Mother, Ma Bell, and Me.
If I’m really honest with myself, as I look back over the landscape of my life, I never really did fit in anywhere. I was almost always standing on the outside looking in.
Often I would be the observer of other people’s successes, failures, heartaches, joys and much of the time, I even stood outside of my own life – watching it as if it were a movie complete with background music that changed depending on how the plot was unfolding.
And of course, there was always the voice of a narrator commenting and interpreting along the way.
For a period of time, the narrator’s voice seemed to fade into the distance. I thought she was finally gone for good. But I realize, though I hate to admit it, that she’s back and truthfully — I missed her.
Again if I’m honest, and I intend to be, the narrator was always me or some aspect of me trying to weave meaning and clarity out of the circumstances and events that were often impossible to fully understand — like when I witnessed the final moments of life of those that I loved.
These were moments of monumental loss which began at a very early age when I was 13, first with my cat whose life slipped away while she was giving birth, then my cousin Gerry at the age of 30 who had been like a sister to me, and later when my parents each took their final breath hooked up to monitors with green flashing lights.
Dying while tethered to technologically advanced machines creates an experience that is quite unique to modern life. It becomes a death that is digitally, electronically documented before one’s eyes.
And I know the electronic, digital world well. I’ve earned my living for over 20 years mostly as a writer and video producer as well as a narrator and on-air reporter and host for news and informational video and television programs. Much of my work has lived and died on the network.
And the role of narrator – of standing outside the activity looking in and reporting on it – is something that comes quite naturally to me – something I have trained for my entire life.
It was never so glaringly clear how out of touch I was than when I was reporting the news while my mother lie at home twisting in pain in her bed.
But I had just landed what I thought was a very exciting assignment and opportunity and so I juggled and juggled and kept all the plates spinning in the air those few weeks in late October 2005.
The fact that I could smile and talk to a lifeless camera while my mother struggled just 13 miles away in her bed alone in the house – was just additional evidence of how out of touch I was with my own life, and with what was important.
Oh I surely did double duty. I don’t think I slept more than a few hours for most of those few weeks, but I was not going to let anything slide and I was not going to lose the chance to work on this project that I was told could last a few years and for which I was being paid handsomely – just over $100,000 a year. And I desperately needed the money then. I’ve spent most of my life in need of money.
And I desperately needed to feel a sense of purpose and that’s what this project offered me.
I envisioned that this little network would morph into something like the future channel and I would be writing and reporting on the bleeding edge of technology and science and this was a tantalizing dream for me.
What I didn’t know or could not have imagined, were the forces at play that had already begun to devour my sandcastle and undermine the very foundation of my existence.
What I perhaps couldn’t have known or imagined, was the awful trade I was engaged in. My mother’s life teetered in the balance as I indulged myself in my delusion — believing that this project that I had begun would fulfill my fantasy of becoming a brand new model of reporter – someone who would be reporting on the future of innovation.
And while my biological mother was navigating her way through her final days, the other mother in my life, who had held me in a different way on and off for more than two decades, was also about to undergo the transformation that no one escapes.
God Could Not Be Everywhere and Therefore He Made Mothers
— Jewish Proverb
Like many modern kids, I had more than one mother and my father had great reverence for both of them.
When I was almost 17 years old and Ma Bell’s new headquarters was moving into our area — to find its home at 295 North Maple Avenue, Basking Ridge, NJ — just about seven minutes from where I grew up in Stirling with its dirt roads, vast open meadows – on the edge of the Great Swamp, my father looked to the new corporate neighbor as evidence of hope for the future.
Being a practical man, and very much in touch with numbers, he saw how this great mother of a phone company would increase property values in the area and he also saw some potential for his children.
“MaryLynn, if you get a job with AT&T, you’ll be set for life,” he would say.
And for my father who worked his entire life as a machinist, a salaried job in the corporate world of glass and marble must have seemed awfully appealing to one whose work environment consisted largely of a factory with oil soaked air.
But in those days, a career in the corporate world was about as far away from what I imagined as possible. I had visions of a life as a writer, artist, actress, fashion designer – almost anything except life at the end of a gated entrance way into what seemed to me a great abyss of boring and meaningless work.
But in 1995, the new world of the Internet was ready to be born and I held old Ma Bell’s hand as we served as mid-wives to this new life — that would change communication on our planet forever.
I suddenly found a purpose that was larger than myself and the company that I worked for. And while I had previously lost hope in the corporate world and AT&T, thinking as Dorothy would say “There’s nothing in that black bag for me” — now there was something that I could sink my heart and soul into and it was thrilling and held promise to transform our world.
It appeared that my father’s prediction might be coming true. And as for my mothers — their message was practically the same.
For years AT&T’s commercials reminded its customers to “Reach out and touch someone…” and in my mother’s daily messages to me, she would conclude with a lilting — “Keep in touch.”
But despite the messages from my mothers — I continued to live my life completely out of touch with most people and the reality around me.
Eventually I would be met with just a vacuous dial tone — and no real connection.