Essay: Phone Phobia

Words by Sloane Citron

Photos by Annie Barnett

Words by Sloane Citron

Among my many character flaws is one to do with telephones. For reasons unknown to me, I have always had a fear of the phone, not the actual device itself, but everything to do with making and answering a call. I have not made any progress on this front since I was six years old.

As a child, I hated answering our home phone, but it had to be done and done properly, always with, “Dr. Citron’s residence.” Since my father was often “on call” as an orthopedic surgeon (think motorcycle accidents), answering the phone required careful attention. I was often alone in my house, so that fell on me. My sense of responsibility in these situations overrode my aversion to picking up the receiver, which was considerable.

When I was about 25 years old, I was visiting my Dad when the phone rang. Neither of us made a move to answer it, but eventually my dad exclaimed, “Answer the phone, Sloane!” I jumped up and obeyed because that’s what I did. After the call, he chastised me for my hesitation, and I told him, “I don’t know why, but I just hate answering the phone,” to which he responded, much to my great surprise, “So do I.” Ah-ha!

I’m a grown man now, with bunches of grandchildren, and I still hate the damn phone. Email was a great gift to me, eliminating almost all of the answering and making of calls. But still there are times when the phone must be used. Ugh!

For several months, I have had it in my mind to get in touch with some old (and I mean old) friends, namely the mothers of several of my childhood classmates. Maternal figures who were especially kind to me or who made a significant impact on my life. Women I held tenderly in my heart. Week after week, I thought about calling them, but that absurd phobia lay deep in my psyche.

But finally, I said, “Enough of this nonsense!” and I started my calls, three in particular.

The first was to Mrs. Barfield. She is the mother of my lifelong friend, Bourdon, whom I’ve known since we were three. She is a lovely, elegant woman. Her warmth, love and kindness when I was a child helped make my somewhat chaotic world more secure. When I talked with her, those emotions came flooding back. We had a wonderful conversation, recalling our shared past, our common friends and the current scene with her many grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. It was with veneration and care that we ended our call.

Next up was Mrs. Altman, a woman who “saved” me during my adolescence. Her son, David, and I were the only Jews in our middle school and had grown up together at our Hebrew school. After my mother departed Amarillo and I was left with my dad (and his girlfriend, soon to be my stepmother), Mrs. Altman stepped in, and for several years, I spent all of my weekends at her home. Though her voice had softened, she was still the feisty, caring woman who welcomed me into her family. It was only as an adult that I came to realize what she had done for me and when I think of it, I always tear up. Our delightful conversation brought joy to us both.

Next, I called Mrs. Standefer, the mother of my first true girlfriend, Susan, from grade school. She has always been my champion and thinks more highly of me than is deserved. She is the type of person who enriches your life and makes you feel better about yourself with her love and zest for life. We had an engaging call all about our old days and the sparkle of Amarillo and her recently lost phone, which she never found.

Calling these women—all of whom had an extraordinary impact on my life—was wonderful. Though it took a bit of emotional energy on my part, I know that I gladdened their days by sharing and recalling the lifetime of love we have had for each other. And, as these things work out, I’m sure I received even more from these calls than they did.

I’m making an effort to do more mitzvot (good deeds). These calls are a part of that. I have a couple more to make and I can feel my body freezing up and shaking in anticipation. It’s ridiculous, I agree. Conquering fears is a lifelong struggle. But I’ve learned that plunging forward can make someone’s life a little brighter, especially your own.