Nonny’s Rotary Phone

CW: death of family member

I can’t really remember what color it was, maybe black or a beige shade. Those are the colors that come to mind when I picture any rotary phone. Nonny’s was something special, though.

It sat next to her chair on a tall, slender table. I think there was a doily underneath the phone. Nonny lived alone so she talked on the phone a lot, but sometimes she would unplug it so I could play with it. I would turn the dial and watch it spin all the way back. I used to wonder how it worked, but of course I couldn’t take it apart. I see myself playing with it and calling imaginary people while Nonny watched professional bowling on the TV. She was either watching bowling or pool. If either of those wasn’t on TV then she would let me put in one of my VHS tapes with my favorite cartoons which was very early Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Tex Avery’s whistling wolf and Chuck Jones’s Bugs Bunny are what I remember on the screen. We watched them every time I was over, which was pretty much every day.

Nonny lived in a brown and white trailer next to our house. Dad bought it for her after Papaw died because he didn’t want her living miles away all alone in Romayor, Texas. She lived beside us until I was about eight or nine years old because she remarried and moved to Silsbee. I liked her husband but I never called him Grandpa or Papaw. I know he didn’t mind, but I did enjoy staying the long summers with them. He lived on a rural street in a house on a big hill that you could roll down, and he had a water fountain in his front yard that he built himself. Looking back, the fountain was kind of tacky but as a kid I enjoyed playing around it and listening to the water as it flowed over the rocks and into the tiny pool below it.

Years later he died and Nonny had to move once again, this time in an apartment in Woodville. When I was in college, I would drive there to visit her since it wasn’t so far away from me. I did that until she moved yet again to Pearland which is just outside of Houston. Her oldest daughter lived out there so she was checked on and visited all the time. I talked to her over the phone, but instead of the rotary phone that she had for many years it was now a cordless phone. I called her from a blue Nokia that had a green screen and no texting. Makes me wonder what Nonny would think of a smartphone.

It was over the phone that I last spoke to her. Nonny had had two surgeries by then: one to take out her gall bladder, the second to fix the surgery when it came undone. I didn’t know that could happen but I hope I never have to have surgery on anything! The third surgery was supposed to be a simple biopsy. Her doctor had found the tiniest spot on her lung and suggested they ‘go in’ to take a sample, and Nonny being a longtime smoker agreed. I remember my dad tried to talk her out of it, to maybe wait a while and check on her lungs in a few months. However, Nonny needed to know and my parents and the rest of the family couldn’t stop her.

On December 3, 2005, she had her surgery. She had a heart attack that night. The doctor spent nearly an hour trying to bring her back. The last words she ever said to me was over the phone.

“I love you, baby.”

Seventeen years later and I can still hear her voice. Sometimes it’s hard to see her face in my memories, sometimes I have to look at a picture. But her voice is as clear as a bell, and although I hear her voice in my head nearly every day, I would give everything I have to pick up the phone and talk to her again.

It was how we stayed connected when I was in college. I talked to her almost every day and told her about my classes and the people I was meeting. Every now and then she would ask if I met a boy and I would just laugh. At that time I was still seeing the older man, whom she knew about. She liked him alright, but I never told her how he really treated me, but I think she wanted me to have as much fun in college as I could, and I did…to the level I could handle.

The night she died, I had a friend over at my apartment to stay with me until my dad arrived. Dad and I shared a beer at the local Tex-Mex and talked about Nonny. A quiet celebration of life for someone who helped raise me, and who was more of a mother to my dad than his own mother was. Mom called me later that night. She was still in Houston with her sister and I remember her saying to me that she just needed to hear my voice.

I sometimes wonder if Nonny was secretly ready to leave. She had lost a lot of weight after her gall bladder surgery and was more tired than usual. She was only 69 but I could tell she was becoming more frail. I was probably the only one in the family that never talked to her about it. Why would I?

When you love someone so deeply, you see them as invincible, and you think they could never leave you. I believe it’s because we are so immersed in our present moments with them that we don’t have time to prepare for the inevitable. This is a good thing though, for how else could we create such incredible memories? I have tons of photos of Nonny’s life, from when she was a little girl, to her marriage to my Papaw, to when she became a parent, a grandparent, a widow. Photos of her life with her second husband in the country, with her friends at the Ladies Auxiliary (she was the most patriotic woman I knew). And of course, thousands of Christmas photos when the whole family gathered at her different houses.

A rotary phone is something that always sticks out in my mind when I think of Nonny, not her unexpected last days, but from when I was a child and there was bowling on TV before I was allowed to put on cartoons. It’s a memory that has never faded and I hope that it never will.

For Nell Conley Bourlon – Feb 14, 1936 to Dec 3, 2005

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