Viola Waldron hasn't been home to her native England in eight years, and her social-security income prohibits her from making trans-Atlantic phone calls to her family.
But for a few precious hours Saturday, Waldron, 74, spoke to her relatives in Birmingham, Plymouth and Liverpool with no worries about how much of her pension would have to go toward her holiday phone bill.
"It's hard for me to phone them even once a year," said Waldron, one of nearly 200 senior citizens who was allowed to make free phone calls Saturday at the Merrill Lynch office in Columbia. "When you live on Social Security and a pension, you can't afford to call home anymore."
The "Holiday Calls Home" program is a Christmas gift to senior citizens from Merrill Lynch offices throughout the country. For six hours Saturday, the 25 telephones in the cubbie holes of the Columbia brokerage house were a din of foreign dialogue.
Like many of the senior citizens who came out for the holiday freebie Saturday, Waldron called her European family for the only time this year.
Some, who called Germany, Ireland and Denmark, called friends or family they had not spoken with in 10 years.
Waldron and her husband, William, 78, are Ellicott City residents who emigrated from Plymouth in 1950.
Waldron can't afford the airplane fares and neither can many of her relatives overseas. A phone call is her only direct link to the homeland she left 40 years ago.
"Everyone was doing well. They were all having their afternoon tea when I called, of course," Waldron said. "It was wonderful to hear from people and to hear that they all have the Christmas spirit. A voice can sometimes carry that message better than a letter."
One man who arrived early in the morning called France to get in touch with a French infantryman who fought alongside him during World War II. The two had not spoken in 45 years and last saw each other as Allied soldiers shortly after D-Day.
One county resident, an African, tried to call Syria. But since the foreign exchange prefix was not listed in American phone indexes, his calls went astray. After two hours of wrong numbers to Africa, he finally connected with his old friend.
Others, like Bill and Jeanne Stevens of Ellicott City, used the free phone to call family members in the United States as well as Europe.
They called their son in Stuttgart, Germany. They called their granddaughter in Charlottesville, Va. They called their daughters in Vancouver, Wash. and in New York state. And while they were at it, they also called their daughter in Deep Creek Lake -- yes, in Maryland.
"We were calling everyone so we just thought we might as well," said Jeanne Stevens, 68. "It costs so much money for phone calls, whether it's Deep Creek Lake or Portland."
Bill Stevens, 70, also talked to his brother in Portland, Ore., who has been struggling with terminal cancer for the past 13 years.
"He told me he's still living life to the hilt and traveling all over," Bill Stevens said. "He said he's expecting to have a wonderful Christmas."
The Holiday Calls Home program is in its 11th year with Merrill Lynch and will be conducted this year at 150 of the company's branch offices throughout the nation, said Allen Johnson, a broker at the Columbia branch.
Even with a cost break offered to Merrill Lynch by MCI phone network, the total price tag to the Columbia branch office alone is estimated at between $10,000 and $50,000, Johnson said.
The aim of the Holiday Calls Home program, says Carol Vaughn, a vice president at the Columbia Merrill Lynch office, is to provide a gift to low-income senior citizens.
In the Columbia office Saturday, the program ran on the honor system. No one was checked for their age, income level, or proof of county residence.
"In some offices, people are screened according to income," Vaughn said.
"But we decided we didn't want to discriminate against people because they were rich or poor. I would just call this a sheer gift."
Edith Chambers, 79, of Columbia, was one of several members of the Columbia-based British Wives' Club of Columbia who called home to England.
She used her call to help persuade her younger sister to come to America for a visit.
Her sister, age 69, lives in Louth in central England. "She was thrilled to hear from me and I think I was able to talk her into coming over for a visit," Chambers said.
She also spoke to her son, who lives in Leicester, England. He is the manager of a supermarket that, despite the tough economic times, is thriving during the Christmas season, she said.
"He said the Christmas rush was on and he hardly had time to talk because he was so busy," said Chambers.