When Mary Leopold helped place a wind phone on hole 11 of Canal Shores Golf Course in Evanston, Illinois, the United States, she envisioned it as a place to connect with her late son, Oliver.
“I love the image of picking up this phone,” she said, “and your words are just carried off into the wind.”
She also envisioned it as a shared space, a meeting space – a beating heart, sending life throughout a community connected by loss.
“The more I dive deep into grief, the more I read about grief and process my own grief,” she said, “the more I realise we have very little in our society where grief is kind of embraced and encouraged.”
The wind phone, she hoped, would invite a different approach.
Wind phones originated in Japan. They’re the brainchild of architect Itaru Sasaki, who purchased an old phone booth more than a decade ago and placed it in his garden to carry on conversations with his late cousin. They typically contain an old rotary phone, not wired to anything, and sit in nature. They’re all over the world, and you can find them mapped at mywindphone.com.
The one in Evanston was placed in June to honour Oliver Leopold, who died unexpectedly in 2021 at age 19.
If you visit now, six months later, you’ll notice piles of rocks, hand-painted with different people’s names, lining the inside and outside of the phone booth. Most of them have been painted and placed there by Leopold.
“I’ve painted close to 300 rocks for people,” she said. “For me, it’s been an act of love.”
Oliver was well-known and beloved in Evanston. He graduated from Evanston Township High School a semester early to get a jump-start on his dream of becoming an emergency medical technician.
He was a regular fixture at the Evanston Fire Department, first as part of the youth Fire Explorer Program and later as an employee. At his high school graduation party – outdoors, masked, in the middle of winter, thanks to Covid-19 – a group of Evanston firefighters swung by in their truck and posed for photos with Oliver in his cap and gown.
He even purchased a decommissioned Evanston Fire Department truck at an auction once, much to his parents’ surprise.
“I said, ‘Where are you going to park this thing?’” Leopold recalls. “He said, ‘Oh! I don’t know!’ All his friends thought it was so cool.”
They eventually found a spot in a private lot where people store boats and landscaping equipment. Oliver’s firefighter friends taught him how to wash it and fill it with gas. The Leopolds donated the truck to the Illinois Fire Service Institute in Champaign after Oliver died.
It’s one of the many ways he remains part of the community that loved him so.
The rocks are another.
Shortly after the wind phone was installed in June, Leopold painted Oliver’s name on a rock and placed it inside – inspired in part by seeing rocks around her neighbourhood painted with the name of a boy who died in a car accident a few years ago.
One day, she hosted a gathering at the wind phone to honour the anniversary of her friend’s husband’s death. Leopold painted a rock with her friend’s husband’s name and brought it to her friend at the gathering. Her friend placed the rock inside the wind phone.
Soon Leopold started posting photos of painted rocks on her Facebook page and on the Facebook page she started for the wind phone (“The Wind Phone on Hole 11”). She began inviting people to contact her if they’d like her to paint a rock for someone they loved and lost.
“It’s become this whole ritual I go through,” she said. “I prime the rocks. I paint them a base colour. I really try to think about the person and how this rock represents a life – whether this life was cut short or this person lived what we would consider a whole, full life; it’s important for me to honour that.”
The Saturday after Thanksgiving at 4pm, just as the sun is starting to set, Leopold will host another community gathering at the wind phone. She will distribute more rocks. Other people, she hopes, will bring rocks they’ve painted to add to the collection.
“It’s such a wonderful way to be held by others,” she said. “It’s become such a contemplative space, to see all those names and feel like you’re sitting with all these lives.”
It’s especially healing right now, Leopold said, as holidays arrive and traditions feel comforting, sure, but also a little jarring.
“With grief, the holidays take on a new meaning,” she said. ”They become very bittersweet because I value my time with my family, and I’m also reminded that Oliver’s not here. So I wouldn’t want to ignore the holidays and not observe them, but there is a huge piece missing.”
Community doesn’t replace that missing piece. But it does build belonging around it. And there’s beauty in that.
“Maybe one day we’ll use the rocks to make a windy path to the wind phone,” Leopold said. “I just want people to know this is a place for all of us.” – Tribune News Service/Heidi Stevens
The list of wind phone locations can be found at mywindphone.com