It was cheaper to take a night train to Oslo than to pay for a hotel, and on the train from Frankfort I met a soft-spoken blonde guy, the kind who majors in business and takes up golf, who rows for his college crew team, who eventually takes over his father’s business—the kind of guy I’d never typically meet, let alone spend hours sharing stories with at two in the morning. He had just graduated from college, and his parents had given him a wad of money to backpack around Europe, and I’d been out of college for a year and had saved up money by creating corporate slide presentations at a god-awful advertising agency, and there we were, the Manhattan hippie chick and the blonde golf guy, sitting together, nodding off together, laughing with the Finnish man sharing our compartment, even though we had little clue what he was talking about. With our giant backpacks, we made our way to the Oslo Youth Hostel, dropped our packs off, and searched for food. We passed a post office, where one could make international calls before the days of cell phones and email, and Golf Guy said he wanted to call his parents. I said, what the hell, I’d try to call my parents, too, so we wrote down our numbers and gave them to the clerk and walked into our booths. I held the receiver, and my mother picked up and the operator said, “Collect call from Lori. Do you accept the charges?”
“No,” my mother said.
I sat in the booth, a little stunned.
My mother said no. Then again, what did I expect? I knew my mother was stingy—after all, at McDonald’s, she’d only get four bags of French fries and divide them among the six in our family. Of course she didn’t want to spend the few dollars per minute it would cost to accept the call.
I walked by Golf Guy’s booth, and he was laughing, and his raised foot rested against the wall in front of him. I told him my parents weren’t home.
It’s not like I’d ever attempted to make a collect call before, not if you don’t count the times I called from Penn Station, on my way to visit my parents on Long Island. On those occasions, the operator would say, “Collect call from Lori,” and before my parents could answer, I’d say, “I’m coming in on the 3:04 train!” and hang up.
This time, however, my mother said no. Years later, when I took a financial literacy class and the instructor asked how we learned about money, what our emotional relationship with money looked like, I remembered my mother not accepting my call. What kind of mother doesn’t accept a collect call from her twenty-one-year-old daughter whom she knows is traveling alone in Europe without an itinerary? I could have been raped or kidnapped or robbed. I could have been in an accident and broken my leg. I could have really needed my mother. But she said no.
While she yapped away on a turquoise rotary phone, my mother drew pages of doodles, her one creative outlet. As a college student, she had studied drawing, painting, and fashion design, but, after marriage, she abandoned her creative endeavors. I took up visual arts in college—photography and printmaking—but when I gave her a silkscreen print, she said she would have liked gold hoop earrings instead.