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Jewish World Review Jan. 2, 2002 / 18 Teves, 5762

Bob Greene

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Two phone calls - and the things that matter -- IT has been a year of war and darkness and fire in the sky, and we have told ourselves repeatedly that we, as a people, have changed forever. Undoubtedly, in many ways we have.

But perhaps the best thing we can do for ourselves is try to remember that in the ways that count - the ways closest to our truest hearts - we have not changed at all.

More than 40 years ago, when I was 11, or not much older, my father came home from work one evening with a funny look on his face.

He asked me about something that had happened at my school that day - a career day event, where people from outside came into classes to talk to the boys and girls about different jobs.

I didn't know how my dad knew to ask - I hadn't told him that morning, when he had left for work, about the career day. I may not even have known myself, until I arrived at school.

He told me that at work that afternoon, he had received a phone call from Lou Berliner.

Lou Berliner was a sportswriter in our town. Not a flashy guy, not the most famous sportswriter on the local paper, but a solid pro with a byline everyone knew. My father may not have known Lou Berliner personally, but he knew his name.

Lou Berliner had been at the career day at my elementary school, talking about newspapers. I had listened to him, had been fascinated, and had asked some questions.

And he had gone back to his newspaper office, had taken the time to call my father at work, and had told my dad he had met me, had been impressed with my curiosity and the questions I had asked, and that he thought my parents should encourage me if I ever showed an interest in working for newspapers. Lou Berliner, who didn't even know my family, had done that.

I remember how surprised my dad seemed that night at dinner - and what an important moment that was for our family. For the first time in your life, someone says you might have some promise - someone lets your parents know. What a thoughtful and generous gesture.

Move forward 40 years and more. Lou Berliner died in 1984; my father has been dead for three Decembers. One recent day the phone rang, and a woman's voice asked for me. I didn't know who might be calling, so I asked who it was.

"This is Katie Couric, calling from New York," the woman said.

I hesitated a second.

"I just met your mom," she said. My mother was, in fact, in New York that day. Her name is Phyllis Greene; at the age of 82, she has written her first book - "It Must Have Been Moonglow: Reflections on the First Years of Widowhood." - and it received some warm praise upon publication. Her publisher had decided to send her on a short tour of the East Coast: Washington, Connecticut, New York.

I was pleased for her, and proud, but the trip made me more than a little nervous; the idea of her being on the road alone at 82 would have been a concern in any kind of year, but it was especially on my mind in the days after Sept. 11. When on her first stop she had arrived in Washington, the phone in her hotel room, unbeknownst to her, had not been plugged in, and I had been unable to reach her until late at night, after it had been fixed. I was very aware of her being out there by herself.

And here was this phone call. "This is Katie Couric, calling from New York. I just met your mom."

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My mother had been at the "Today" show at NBC, taping a segment that would be aired on a future morning. Katie Couric had done the interview.

And she had just wanted to call me to tell me how great my mom was. To tell me how impressed she was with her as a person, and how much she had liked her.

The things that matter don't change. The headlines, as the years go by, may contain different words; the news stories that seem so life-altering may contain different details from day to day. But the things that count? They don't vary much at all.

Forty years ago and more, a father at work in Ohio gets a phone call, out of nowhere, from a sportswriter who just wants to tell a parent that his child may have some promise.

Forty years later, the child, now grown, gets a call from a celebrated broadcaster in New York, who just wants to tell the child what a fine person his parent - his mother - is, and what a favorable impression she has made on everyone she met at NBC.

Dark days in our country? Troubling days in our world? Of course. We will never forget this year, not any of us - and when we think back on it, most of the thoughts may be somber ones.

But not all the thoughts. "I just met your mom." The things that really matter? The things that make our lives worth living - the unexpected kindnesses that arrive out of the blue?

They don't make the headlines. Yet they endure longer than any news that does. Count on it.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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