Dial A Friend

March 06, 1994|By Susan Schoenberger

A phone list hangs on my refrigerator, anchored by a bagel-shaped magnet. I should take it down, since the numbers are memorized, but I keep it there for its comfort value.

It's a remarkable list, really. Its presence reminds me that life is unpredictable, and not always in a bad way. Somebody has to win the lottery.

In the summer of '92, when my son was 6 months old, I didn't know any of the seven families on my list. I might have passed them on the street in South Baltimore, but they were strangers. Few circumstances would have brought us together.

But I got a letter in the mail one day, a business-sized envelope with handwriting and an unfamiliar return address. It was the kind you get only often enough to keep you sorting through the junk mail. I read it three times.

The writer, A. J. Blye, was a mother of two who had recently moved to Baltimore from California. She said she got our name and address from the diaper service we used. She said she had an idea.

Looking back, I'm surprised my cynical self didn't suspect A. J. of organizing a kidnapping ring. But the letter struck just the right balance, and I was in the right mood: still on maternity leave from work and realizing it was tough to make new friends who'd want to spend time watching me mix up rice cereal. I've never been one of those people who can knock on doors and introduce themselves, striking up lifelong friendships.

But A. J. was.

So we walked a few blocks to her house one Saturday morning and met seven neighborhood couples who all had children still in diapers. In a few hours, we put together a baby-sitting co-op and agreed to a regular Friday evening exchange in which two couples would watch all the kids while the other six couples went out.

I came away with my list of numbers.

I took pride in seeing it up there on the fridge before I ever used it. It meant that I could call someone in the neighborhood in case of an emergency. I could fill in one of the names on forms at the doctor's office, replacing my mother, who lives in New York.

At first, the numbers had no personality, unfamiliar, as they were, the people on the other end of the line. And I was a little nervous about dialing, afraid I would call at a bad time or reach someone who wasn't quite sure this co-op thing was a good idea.

In a way, we trusted each other before we really knew each other. I could sense right away that people willing to share their children with me could probably be trusted with mine. But the friendships took a little more time.

Every Friday evening, I learned a little bit more about the names on my list as we broke up rumbles over toys or went out together -- on our off days -- for crabs at a neighborhood dive. The numbers became familiar, almost dialing themselves.

We have eight boys and two girls among us -- two of them born after the group started. They have joined our lives, giving us the kind of extended family we don't have nearby, a taste of what it's like to raise a girl and a way to size up life from babyhood to preschool -- all its stages laid out in a glance.

The list changed my life. I realized that while sitting in the National Aquarium's cafeteria with three other mothers and four children one day last summer. Pieces of hot dog and french fries littered the floor as we talked about books and movies and teething, and I realized that I would have liked these people as friends regardless of whether they had children.

When I look at the juice-stained paper under the bagel magnet now, I see what anchors me to the neighborhood. I've moved around quite a bit since college -- five cities in nine years -- and none of them felt like home. But what made my mother's house a home? It wasn't the framed photographs or the piano or the fireplace. It was the phone numbers she could call whenever she needed a friend to plan a party, to give one of her four children a lift, or just to yak into the night, stretching out the phone cord as she cleaned the kitchen.

There is power in my list, power in its ready feedback and in the confidence it gives me. If I have a party, someone will come.

There was a time when such a list would have compiled itself, as people grew up in their respective neighborhoods, settled down and had children. And grandparents probably would have been nearby, ready to offer a weekly night out.

But that's increasingly rare today. Of the 16 adults in our group, only two grew up in South Baltimore and still have family there.

So the list, always tacked there on the fridge next to the recycling schedule, has taken on that role. It means I'm home.

SUSAN SCHOENBERGER is a copy editor for The Sun.

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