The Parables
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The Parables

The Phone Call from Grandma

This has only happened to me once.

My grandmother, Sara, 1921… one hundred years ago… wow.

In my second year of college, I was a resident counselor in a freshman dorm. The room was single; I enjoyed sharing my enthusiasm with new students. It was finals week, which was unfortunately after the Christmas break, and I was sitting at my desk, pounding out a term paper when the phone rang.

I was distracted, but answered. It was my grandmother.

“Hello, darling,” she said. “How are finals going?”

I turned off the electric typewriter for a moment to chat. “Fine, fine… I’m in the middle of a term paper.” I explained the topic and she feigned interest and I told her other things about my school year. I wasn’t that close with my grandparents, my mom’s parents, but happy to hear from her. “Your mom is here. So is Aunt Phyllis and we all miss you.”

Sara, Al and Lorna (1967)

That struck me as odd. My mom really didn’t enjoy hanging out with her parents — but more weird was that my Aunt Phyllis was my dad’s sister. I wasn’t quite clear what Aunt Phyllis would be doing in Los Angeles instead of New York. I had never experienced someone’s senility before, but I was starting to hear little odd mistakes she would make while telling me things. It was getting me upset. I was already stressed from finals, but thinking that my grandmother was getting Alzheimer's totally freaked me out. I was distracted by this thought.

“The steps you re-built for the porch last summer are a big hit with everyone,” she said. Oh fuck, I didn’t build any steps for her. I’m going to have to call my mom and tell her about this. She’s going to be crushed.

“Oh, and Jim, I’m making your favorite pecan pie tonight — don’t be jealous!”

Wait a second. I do love pecan pie, I mean, I really do. But my name isn’t Jim. Something is wrong. Very wrong.

I figure it out. This isn’t my grandmother. It’s a wrong number.

“Jim, your mom is here. Why don’t you say hello?”

“No! I blurt out. No, grandma, I need to get back to my paper. I’ll call later.”

“Are you sure, she’s right here…”

I did not want to talk to Jim’s mom. And after 30 minutes on the phone, I wasn’t prepared to simply hang up or say “oops, wrong number.” I needed to extract myself gently. I did the best I could.

“I have to go but I promise to call later. Say hi to everyone for me. I love you, Grandma.” I love you Jim’s grandma!

Sara trying a rowing machine (1990)

I hung up and I was shaking. I couldn’t go back to my paper.

Over the next many months I told this story to other students, to everyone’s general amusement. It was just the strangest thing, even stranger how interchangeable grandparents (or their collegiate grandkids) must be. We wondered how often this happened.

As the school year was winding down I was at a campus cafe talking with some other counselors. A little group formed as a few more walked up. When we were comparing notes on where we were living, this guy said “You’re in 302 Morris? That was my room a couple years ago! That’s a great room.”

Light bulb. I wondered: “Is your name Jim?”

His face lit up, astonished at my tremendous guess. “Yes!”

“Jim, I know this is going to sound weird so I’d like you to sit down. But did you build steps off the back porch of your grandmothers house last summer?”

Jim’s eyes widened and he sat down next to me. “That’s crazy. Yes.”

“And you have an Aunt Phyllis?”

Everyone stopped talking.

“I have a story to tell you.”

— and I told him what I just told you. After we laughed Jim bolted from the cafe to call his mom and tell her the story. But in the end, no one ever told grandma.

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