I’m singing with my mother, for the first time in our lives. She is 99. She lives in an assisted living facility I’m no longer allowed to enter. All activities are suspended: no concerts or lectures. My mother’s private aide quit when a resident a few doors down tested positive for COVID-19, and she heard there was sickness up and down the hall. So now my mother is alone in her apartment all day. Over the phone, we sing “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” and “Frere Jacques.” We’ve been singing songs out of the Haggadah, even though Passover is over, because she can still call those songs to mind. We end patriotically, as events at the senior residence often do, with “Grand Old Flag.” But her favorite song is about a man who once broke the singer’s heart but has gotten his just deserts because his new girlfriend dumped him. The song ends: “Goody goody for her! Goody goody for me! And I hope you’re satisfied, you rascal, you!”
Looking it up on YouTube, I see that “Goody Goody” is a song Benny Goodman recorded with Helen Ward. My mother knows every single word even though she can’t say what she ate for lunch. The singing puts her in a good mood, and it puts me in a good mood, too. The phrase “goody, goody” reminds me of the pastries my mother used to buy for my father at Heisler’s bakery. Supper always ended with a goody for my father and cookies for us kids. Or, if I got a high mark on a test at college, my mother would say: “Get yourself a goody.” So the lyric, with its triumphant ring, also conjures a display of almond cookies and Linzer torte.
My mother actually sounds happier than she has in a long time. She announces: “The telephone is a wonderful invention!” I used to call her only on weekends; now I call two or three times a day. She often tells me, “I love you!” although she occasionally calls me by my sister-in-law’s name. In fact, the real reason my mother is so happy is my sister-in-law, who, when the aide quit, vowed to call my mother once each hour. And she does, phoning on the hour between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and chatting for several minutes.
The day the aide quit, when we heard about all the disease on the floor, my sister-in-law said: “I feel your mother’s on the sinking Titanic.” I thought so, too. It horrified and saddened me to think it might be a matter of weeks until she was terribly sick. We had been planning a big party for her 100th birthday in May. Before that, I was also looking forward to Mother’s Day, which she and I always celebrate together, just the two of us. I planned to bring her to Liebman’s Delicatessen. She eats quickly there because she loves their food—I have to remind her to set the frankfurter with mustard and sauerkraut down between bites—and then she likes to sit and gaze around, taking pleasure in seeing the other people, all so young compared to the senior living residents. Now, though, I was afraid for her, and only hoped she would be spared fear and pain. During my morning meditation session, tears dripped down my cheeks.
During those first days after the aide quit, my mother kept asking when she was coming back, and told me she missed her. Believing her aide was sick, she often said, “I hope she’s better soon!” But then one day my mother announced, to my surprise, that she was happy without her aide. “I don’t need someone bossing me around, telling me what to do,” she said. “I’m not a 6-year-old who needs to be supervised!”
An old trait of my mother’s has returned: a spiky resistance. Her own mother, born in the old country (Russia), was tyrannically strict, and my mother has a resentment of authority over her person. Back when she was allowed to leave her apartment, she could be caustic to someone who asked her to press the elevator button. On line to the group dining room, she used to occasionally say to someone blocking her way, “Hey, lady—” like a gum-chewing kid on The Bowery Boys. I always like when these old aspects of my mother peek out, even though I’m also mortified. They feel like a bit of bedrock Manhattan schist pushing up through lawn. They’re not making people quite like this anymore.
I’m aware that there’s a great deal I don’t understand about my mother, who is shrewder and worldlier than I have ever been. She started work at 14, with forged working papers. And, while she loved to read, she never lost herself in novels the way I did. She read newspapers and short stories. She often said to me, “I’m a short story person.” She didn’t like to depart from the real world too long. I couldn’t understand that: I craved escapist depths.
Now she’s an old lady, both cranky and gentle, with luminous blue-green eyes that I haven’t seen in two months. I finally explained to her that the pandemic is the reason her aide isn’t coming in. I didn’t tell her COVID-19 was diagnosed on her own floor. She doesn’t ask when this situation will be over. She doesn’t say she’s restless to go out. She doesn’t reminisce about the past and compare this to other experiences. She’s surprised and saddened when I tell her I hear ambulances all day, going to the hospital up the avenue. She’s relieved when I tell her that lately there are fewer ambulances. She sits on her couch all day, beside her the same newspaper I receive, which tells about the thousands of deaths in nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the U.S., especially ones in New York. She is present on her cushion as I am present on mine.
First thing each morning I ask my mother how she’s feeling. I hold my breath, worried she’ll say she feels feverish or that there’s a pressure in her chest. So far all’s been fine. She eats meals alone with the door shut. The director of her facility sends daily emails but he stopped telling the number of residents diagnosed with COVID-19 weeks ago.
Several times a day, my mother and I sing. She has a high soprano that sounds almost falsetto. We sing “Eliyahu Hanavi.” She knows all the words to that. I think it’s the loveliest melody in the Seder. I remember being the one to go to the door of our apartment and open it while the family sang. Although the herald of the messiah was supposed to be coming in, something about the echoes down the corridor gave me the shivers. And yet it was beautiful and mystical, this moment: the empty corridor, the Bronx-apartment door, which, hanging open, was associated with danger, the major and minor notes, the sense I was away from my family, standing by myself, trying to be a guardian, with emptiness ahead. The glass full of red wine for Elijah that would sit out all night on the table, and in the morning would hold less.
“It’s so good to hear your voice!” my mother tells me when I call. I tell her the same thing. I ask her to walk to the bedroom window of her tiny apartment so that she gets some exercise. She exclaims, “I’m sending you a million kisses!” because my request makes her feel loved. I say, “I’m receiving them! And sending you a million kisses!” Her walker creaks into softness as she pushes it away from me across the floor to the window. It gets louder when she eventually returns. Then there’s a bit of a clamor as she grabs the phone again—she seems to be juggling it; it sounds enormous in her hand—and then she lifts it up. And then we agree on a song, and sing.
Bonnie Friedman is the author of the bestselling Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, which is being reissued by HarperCollins this June.