Before lockdown, I called my mother every day on my way to work. Instead of the traditional “Hello,” she answers calls in medias res, her words pouring out in a thick Long Island accent: “I have been watching Mad About You all morning and it’s just so adorable. I just love this show! He’s so adorable. Now that’s the kind of guy you should be with. Do you like his looks? I think he’s gorgeous. Do you ever watch this show? Everything is on this YouTube—it’s so fantastic!”
I wait until the story exhausts itself—like watching a deflating balloon whirl around a room—before saying anything. These anecdotes, which range from something she heard on Rachel Maddow to the plotlines of schmaltzy sitcoms, only last about 30 seconds, but by the time she’s finished, I’m fully annoyed. The rest of our conversation is brief and perfunctory: work, weather, my plans for that night. The conversation is over in under three minutes. “Alright,” I say, cutting it short. “I love you.”
When I was younger, I would call my mother my best friend. I thought she was beautiful and funny and fun. Thinking back, I find her permissive parenting style shocking: When I didn’t feel like going to school, she’d lie to my teachers and tell them I was sick. Sometimes I’d skip class and we’d spend the day at the mall. She’d let me have friends over in the middle of the night; she’d let me have boys over whenever I wanted. She’d curse and make dirty jokes. She was a cool mom, and I felt lucky she was mine.
As I got older, I would say that we were close—a euphemism for a complicated relationship. But it was also technically true; according to my call log, we were very close. Whenever my brother and I would talk seriously about mom—about her latest work drama or car accident or money issue—I would find myself citing these daily calls as proof of my daughterly devotion. “We need to plug into her life,” my brother would say. “What more can I do? I talk to her constantly.”
“When I was younger, I would call my mother my best friend. I thought she was beautiful and funny and fun.”
I started taking care of my mother when I was in high school. Our role reversal was so pronounced that sometimes—when she asked for a glass of water before bed, or when I reminded her to tell me if she was going to be out late—she would call me “Ma.” Our dynamic didn’t bother me; I recognized it as unusual, not problematic—an inside joke between the two of us.
Things got more serious when I went to college. When I was 21, my father died and all my mother could provide was off-color humor. “Aren’t you a little relieved?” she said later that night with a crooked smile. She always treated my dad—a complicated figure who was in and out of my life—with mockery and dark humor. Maybe she was just trying to break the tension, to absorb the shock of a sudden death. But for the first time, the joke wasn’t funny anymore.
The space between my mother and me continued to grow. As I became more serious—about my work, about my relationships, about the quality of my life—she became sillier, hoping, perhaps, that I would snap out of the rigidity of adulthood. She mourned the messy girl I left behind—“you’re so uptight!” she’d yell—but also marveled at my transformation.
“You are absolutely incredible,” she’d say after I told her I was on my way to work. “I don’t know how you get up every single day and go to work this early. You really are fantastic.” Her awe infuriated me. “Mom,” I’d say in a cold, clipped tone, “it is not exceptional to go to work at 9:30 in the morning.” She laughed: “Well, it is for me!”
The jobs that have worked for my mother played to her strengths: socially driven sales roles with very little structure. She was always the most popular person on the floor, but she invariably found herself in trouble—scheduling mishaps, dubious discounts for her favorite customers. After she was let go, it was almost always met with relief. “Honestly,” she’d say, “I hated that fucking place.”
In my mother’s mind, we are always on the precipice of something great. She was counting on the next thing—an amazing job, a beautiful apartment, a perfect relationship. “I just feel it,” she’d say to me. “You have no idea how special and fantastic you are. Just you wait and see, we’ll be laughing about this in a few months.” When I was young, I relied on her irrepressible optimism and lavish praise, but now they took on a kind of tragic color. I could no longer countenance her reckless dreaming; I’d respond only with eye rolls and icy logic.
When COVID-19 hit, I worried most of all for my mother, who lives alone in a small studio in Westchester. She’s a bit like a child: She hugs freely, trusts instinctively. I felt she lacked the organization to follow the new health guidelines. Is she washing her hands for the full 20 seconds? Is she wiping down her groceries properly? How will she even get groceries?
We figured out the logistics fairly easily. My brother helped her navigate the bureaucracy of applying for stimulus payments and unemployment, and I was responsible for arranging her food deliveries. The onslaught of bad news, the indefinite timeline, the absence of silver linings, however, was harder to handle.
“For my mother and me, quarantine didn’t change the amount we spoke—but rather the way in which we communicated.”
My initial attempts to help came off as schoolmarmish: I scolded her for sleeping in, for staying up late, for not making herself proper dinners. “This is not vacation,” I said a few weeks into quarantine. “This is real life. You will surprise yourself with how much better you feel when you wake up every morning and have a plan for your day.”
She said she would try to be better. I hung up the phone, but I couldn’t shake the sadness I felt. A short while later, I called her back. “Don’t worry, baby,” she said. “I love you no matter what.” That afternoon, she texted me a photo of the oatmeal raisin cookies she made. “I’m practicing to be a good grandma!”
At the end of April, my sister-in-law had a baby. The night before my nephew was born, my mother and I spent hours on the phone—imagining what the baby would look like, how my brother would be as a father, and how excited we were to one day meet this new person. She texted me her favorite photos of us as kids. I entertained her stream of questions: “Do you think he will have curly hair? Will Yana like breastfeeding? What do you think the baby’s cry will sound like?”
We kept dreaming out loud—and, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t mind. Much has been written about the return of the phone call, but for my mother and me, quarantine didn’t change the amount we spoke—but rather the way in which we communicated. Our lives suddenly looked similar: both of us living alone, grappling with an unsettling new reality. In the absence of status updates, our conversations shifted to our emotions—complicated and honest.
It was well after midnight and the conversation turned to me: which baby names I liked, how I’d be as a mom. Like always, she went on for a while, but I liked listening to her tell this story. I’ve long seen the effect my mom has had on other people—how happy and loved and seen they feel when she’s around. I felt myself softening, and for a brief moment, the outside world seemed very far away. “You know, being able to talk to you like this,” my mother said, “is the best part of this fucking virus.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue