My mother began her career with South Central Bell when she graduated high school. She was a telephone operator. She wore the headset; she sat at a switchboard with a room full of other women, and ah, the irony, for at least ten years she served as the central connection in a million different tenuous relationships. And because she could never quite figure out where she ended and I began, I absorbed the identity of switchboard operator seamlessly into my own self-concept by the age of two. I was the only five-year-old who diligently walked the picket line whenever the union decided to strike. Likewise, I was the only 13 year old in my 8th grade civics class who knew that AT&T was an abbreviation for “American Telephone and Telegraph,” who understood the term “divestiture” and could explain it with just the right amount of contempt in my voice, and the only one who knew that Ma Bell was a company not a person. (Of course this was decades before the “Citizens’ United” case that informed us that corporations WERE actually people, but I digress…). Hell, I even had telephone operating to thank for my very name. My extremely pregnant mother could not decide on a name for me; she put through a long distance phone call from a woman named “Emily,” and the rest, as they say, is history.
Between the ages of five and ten, I spent countless hours wearing one of her old, discarded headsets, plunging pencils with strings attached to resemble wires into my own, home made switchboard. And I pulled out all the stops: constantly in motion in my swivel chair, enormous wad of chewing gum smacked loudly, and the heavy mantle of responsibility cloaked around me as I connected and disconnected phone calls. “Sir, you have a collect call from Robert Smith; will you accept the chawges?” “NO?! What do you mean ‘NO!’? He just survived his third tour in ‘Nam; he’s your only son, and you have nothing to tell him? Well, HUMPH!!! I never…Good day, sir; I SAID “GOOD DAY!” “The number you are trying to reach has been disconnected or is no longer in service. Please hang up and try your call again.”
More times than I can count, I sat, quiet as a church mouse (and “quiet” has NEVER been my strong suit!!) with my mother and her co-workers (best friends, chosen family, confidants? I am still uncertain of which term she might have most approved), and I LISTENED. I listened to office gossip, and who was sleeping with whom, and why So-&-so’s sister was getting a divorce, and why Anon’s brother REALLY carried a purse and lived in San Francisco….
I went to (and felt a genuine sense of belonging) at other folks’ family reunions, and I called her co-workers’ extended family members Nanny Ma, and Auntie, and Gpa. This is rare picture of my mother with her friends (the guy in the white beard and red suit is NOT one of them and is a tad suspect…. Just sayin’!!) I loved the smoke-filled break-room, with vending machine coffee and a sort of constant, round robin dialogue (Yes, I drank coffee at age two…your point?!) I accepted the love these women and their families lavished on me, and didn’t really differentiate them from my actual “blood kin,” mostly because what my immediate family lavished on me was anything BUT love. I had no idea that being a telephone operator could actually become EVEN MORE impressive…. And then I met Ernestine….
With her neat 1940’s hairdo, her sour puss expression, and her nasally voice demanding, ” Yeeeesssss, is this the pawty to whom I yam speaking?!” Lily Tomlin, in “Ernestine the Operator” disguise, made her way into my consciousness.
I was enraptured; I was elated; had I been a wee bit older, I would have recognized that I was in love! Lily Tomlin quickly became my heroine extraordinaire. From her appearances on various comedy/variety shows, to cinematic classics like “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” and “9-to-5,” I knew, somewhere in the deep recesses of my child-mind, that Lily Tomlin (nee Ernestine) was “Home.”
Forty some-odd years later, in a theatre in Minneapolis, I would have the unbelievable, unreal experience of seeing Lily Tomlin in person. I can’t remember what she said or if I laughed instead of standing stock still with my mouth open like I was trying to catch flies. I do know that I am STILL shocked that the mere memory of holding a banana like a telephone receiver and doing my best 5 year old Ernestine impression can and did cause tears to spring to my eye. I continue to puzzle over the complicated layers of grief and loss that my mother’s death heralded. Women who had no children of their own, but always treated me like I was theirs-no different from the blood related nieces and nephews I grew up alongside; women who acknowledged (and then apparently “forgot”) the role my mother’s silence played in the horror that was my childhood; women who had the audacity to stand five feet from the freshly turned earth that would soon cover my mother’s casket and berate me for “abandoning” the person who had at least implicitly agreed, by virtue of giving birth, and then did an immediate about-face, that HER role was to PARENT me. One person’s death bringing losses too numerous to even try to count….
And I cannot help but smile as I picture a sassy, gum-smacking five year old little girl wearing a headset, poking a pencil in a hole and saucily asking, “Is this the pawty to whom I yam speaking?!” The best part of me taking comfort in the fact that I will forever truly be the child of “Ernestine” and “Ma Bell.”