This is a series of email conversations during the quarantine between writer Michele Willens and her aunt, Doris Willens Kaplan, who is at an assisted living facility in Princeton, N.J.
Dear Auntie D,
I miss you so much, and I even miss the two subways, two trains, and two taxis I would take every month to visit you. Aren’t you grateful we all got together in August to celebrate your 95th?? I also miss saving the Times crossword for you to finish, and hearing the other residents [at the assisted living facility] extoll your latest musical show. “That could be on Broadway!” I remember one shouting. I couldn’t help but laugh when you described the difficulties of ‘casting’: one lead had to have cataract surgery! Another suddenly was on life support!
Yes, that’s when you said, “you don’t need understudies, you need undertakers!” I miss you too. I have three sons, but you have always felt like a daughter to me.
And you have always been such a role model for me. I was a shy Santa Monica girl who dreamed of writing in the big city. You were a journalist–the first female editor of the UCLA Bruin–and later, had a big job in advertising, on Madison Avenue! Isn’t it funny that I now live on that street? Even knowing you wanted to go into your lovely facility after Roy [Auntie D’s partner] died…you were only 79? Would you say, “no regrets?” That it has been a worthwhile NEXT or THIRD or FINAL act??
No regrets about this place. I recall the first time you visited, when you asked if they had ‘early decision.’ Ha. I was 83 when I came here, found a wonderful pianist, and immediately began writing shows for the residents. I know you wish I would use my writing more now, when those I love cannot visit. How could I ever have imagined that at almost-96, I may never again see my sons, my grandchildren, my beloved niece in person? To hug them, to kiss them, to watch their facial expressions. What is left for me to imagine is dying without anyone in my family to hold my hand. Being hauled to a funeral parlor and then into a crematorium with no one to cry.
I know, it’s unthinkable. So, you are not allowed to see Ann and Tom? Aren’t those that names of that wonderful couple who join us almost every time I come for lunch? I understand why they won’t let outsiders visit, but in all honesty, would you mind being allowed to leave your room, to see other friends there? At this stage in your lives, what most matters?
Those are the company rules–what matters most to me might be seeing my friends, but what matters most to my facility is saving lives, and who can fault them? Twenty-five residents have contracted the virus; sixteen have recovered; nine have died. At least two of the nine deliberately flouted the rules, setting up a wine party for friends. A few residents have been seen creeping out of the rooms of residents of the opposite sex.
Sneaking into girls’ rooms? It sounds like summer camp! Well…at least your place is safe from the violence and protesting that has taken over the country. Last night I watched formerly sleepy, sunbaked Santa Monica filled with fires and looting. What else can happen??
It’s horrible, for sure. Ironically, right out of Columbia Journalism School I was hired by the Minneapolis Tribune, which had the guts to send me to cover the police department, First woman ever. Did I ever tell you that my competition covering for the Minneapolis Star was Harry Reasoner? There was lots of grumbling among the cops—I heard them complain that they would have to clean up their language. But the chief of the department took a liking to me and waited to do press events until I came on at 2 pm. I must say I have some envy for those who passed before now. What is there to look forward to?
I get it. When I think back to 2003, I truly believe my dad [Aunt D’s brother] was ready to go: first because he was missing my mom so much, and then, because of all the technology he knew was coming. We constantly told him he was using the phone, and not the remote, which is why he couldn’t find “Law and Order” or the Lakers. I bought him a laptop because he loved to be in touch with grandchildren. But his arthritis made that too frustrating. Who knows what he would think of this moment? Though he did imagine–and fought for years to prevent the worst-case scenario, nuclear annihilation. I still recall, as a young girl, sitting with him to watch On the Beach. [about the aftermath of nuclear war]. “Is this the new Frankie Avalon and Annette movie?” I asked. ”No way,” he said. But he didn’t make me leave the room.
I think of Harold every time I pick up the phone and try to change the channel. And I think of my Mom with every Zoom, because she used to dress up before turning on the TV, certain that the people on the screen could see her. And now they can. A debatable bit of progress. Harold was fortunate to have lived the good life, but dying before the pandemic screwed up the entire world. This has put his important life work–his anti-nuclear activities—on some backseat somewhere. When will we think about nuclear warfare again?
Ah yes, I remember Grandma Bobbie fixing her hair before watching a TV show. It’s interesting how little I remember, or even knew, about her and Grampa. I loved her French toast, of course. And she and I played War, the card game, that sometimes lasted for days. But I feel guilty I didn’t ask them more about their lives. My niece, as you know, was the first of our family to dig into Ancestry and she became obsessed. I made her promise that if she discovered YOUR brother was not MY father, NOT to tell me. Ha.
Your grandparents were immigrants from the Ukraine. Grampa came over in 1914; Bobbie with eight-year old Harold, in 1922. I was the first person in our family to be born in the U.S.A. So you can imagine how I feel about Trump’s war on immigrants. Grampa became a business agent in the International Women’s Garment Union and an active leftie. Bobbie went to work in a garment factory, where she kept the other “girls” in laughter all day. But at heart she was a homemaker, who loved to sing and dance, who hated politics because they kept her husband in meetings at night.
Guess it runs in the family. Today I actually walked to Times Square to take part in a protest. My kids were not happy, but somehow, it felt good to participate in the call and response rhetoric. (“What’s his name?” “George Floyd!”)
Michele, today I learned I have lymphedema in my right arm, the same side as my mastectomy 21 years ago. I have to keep it bandaged, and for long stretches hold that arm above my heart. I’ve also been having to do the “above the heart” with my left leg, so at this point I look like some kind of circus acrobat, and I’m not at all sure what I will be able to do or not do at the computer. Every morning a clinic nurse comes and wraps my arm, which looks like an accordion when the bandage is removed at bedtime. I am seeing the doctor Monday for info on what to expect from this addition to my medical issues list.
I pray you won’t have to return to the health care center “on campus.” That was the worst I’d ever seen you—God, was that only six months ago? I still recall you saying, “I want to go to sleep and not wake up.” I always say you have made more comebacks than Jimmy Carter! All I am hoping for is being together for your 96th!
I’m sorry to say I’m feeling that way again. Don’t plan on the 96th.