The Ghost on the Zoom Call

It is four in the afternoon on a Thursday, time for the weekly Zoom call my mother waits for in her nursing home. This is the time of day that sundowning can likely happen—when patients lose track of the world, lose track of themselves. Their minds have gone away with the sun, confusing day and night.

I log in to the same message every week: Recurring Meeting for Matilde Bolton—Hebrew Senior Life—Three East Berenson. It’s as if my mother stars in a local cable television show. I wait for the host to let us in; the host is the social worker whom my mother can’t stand. On a full week, there are eight of us who anchor six cubes—three middle-aged children and one son-in-law, along with four grandchildren, are suspended in space, waiting to enter.

As if a wand has been waved, we suddenly appear on the screen. We’re an oddball crew of cheerleaders for my mother, but she does not want to be cheered up or placated. She wants to be sprung from the awful food and her fellow residents who, she complains, drool and smell.

“No me gustan viejos,” she says in her native Spanish. She doesn’t like old people. She doesn’t like Zoom much either. It disorients her. Are we real, or has she imagined us crowding on-screen for this bizarre recording? The word Zoom in this context is new to my mother. In another iteration, it implied quickness, the smooth glide of going somewhere fast—things she can no longer do.

Including my mother, we inhabit seven squares. At the beginning of each Zoom session, my mother asks who we are. The grandchildren call her Abu, short for Abuela—a moniker my daughter invented as a toddler when she could not pronounce Abuela.

“Abu, you’re silly,” they’ll playfully say to her.

The comment makes my mother either furious or giggly. When she laughs now, her voice is as scratched up as the old vinyl records of Cuban dance music to which we used to listen. That same voice is still as frightening as it ever was when she’s angry.

We try mightily to engage my mother on these calls by asking her what she had for lunch. My mother scrunches up her face and says the same thing each time: “Porquería! Basura!” Junk! Garbage! If it’s a bad week, she’ll go on to stamp out her entire life with those same words. It was the same when I was a kid. Her life was mierda.

My mother is agitated when everyone speaks at once or, worse yet, if we have side conversations. She’s sure that we’re talking about her or deliberately confusing her. “Sha, sha, sha,” she’ll scream when she’s had enough. “Secreticos, secreticos, secreticos!” She thinks that we’re telling little secrets about her, secreticos that are planted everywhere like mines. The sun is neither up nor down. Her paranoia is a throwback to those years she pulled my hair and accused me of talking basura behind her back: “I can hear you wherever you are in the world.”

There are weeks when my mother is visibly delighted to be on Zoom. Those are the times she sees her mother, my abuela, inhabiting a Zoom cubicle. “Look, there’s my mother,” she says, waving and smiling. Abuela has been dead for over forty years. Over text, my sister and I debate whether to tell my mother this hard, bedrock fact. “Is it dementia?” my sister asks. I type back that I think Mom spends too much time alone in her room. “It’s a by-product of the Covid-19 lockdown—a hallucination,” I write back.

“Look at Abuela,” my mother says. “Mira, look, my mother is smiling and waving back at me. ‘Hola, Mamá!’ Can you see her?”

I’m the oldest of my mother’s three children, and I know it will fall to me to tell her that her mother is dead—the ultimate secretico unleashed, darkening my mother’s world like a solar eclipse.

“I know she’s dead.” My mother is insulted that I am stating the obvious to her. “I’m not stupid.”

To read the rest of this essay go to the Catapult website

Life In Translation by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My mother masks her creeping frailty behind a fraying quirkiness. She lives a couple of hours away from me in a shambled two-story colonial to which she’s laid siege at 1735 Asylum Avenue. It’s the home to which she brought her babies from the hospital. It’s the home that I left to after I graduated from college. It’s the home where my wedding dress hung on the living room mantle while I got ready. It’s the home where my father died.

It was once a house bulging with the cacophony of industry—the ratatatat of my father the accountant’s adding machine, the thick-as-molasses voices of kids reciting stem-changing Spanish verbs at my mother’s summer school. I’d sit at the top of the basement stairs listening to her drill her hapless students like the master sergeant she was meant to be.

When she retired as a Spanish teacher, she forged a new and exciting career as a court interpreter. Her specialties were drug busts and juvenile cases. A judge once scolded her for interfering with a 15 year-old’s sentencing. “Pobresito,” my mother interrupted. “Poor kid, he didn’t mean it.” It wasn’t the first time my mother was in contempt of something.

When her legs worked, my non-driving mother crisscrossed Connecticut on Amtrak and Greyhound to get to far-flung courts in Waterbury and New Haven. Though she’d never admit it, she was a callejera—someone who liked to be out and about. And for years I was her callejera-in-training on the streets of Downtown Hartford. Saturday afternoons we set out looking for bargains and chicken salad sandwiches in Sage-Allen’s basement. Sage-Allen may have been G. Fox’s poor cousin, but it was the only place in town to get a raspberry soda to go with our sandwiches. And their coffee was my mother’s reliable laxative.

Sage-Allen is long gone. A few years into retirement, my mother replaced the store’s coffee with something she needed more—adrenalin—the adrenalin of processing sixteen arraignments after a night of drug busts. My mother the translator was as quick as ticker tape. Including the Portuguese my mother learned years ago from our house cleaner, she knows a suspect’s rights in three languages.

And she knows her rights too. She’s not budging from Asylum Avenue. She’s not transferring power of attorney to her adult children. If it comes down to it, she’ll get to a bill on second or third notice. She’s not in a hurry anymore. If someone wants to learn Spanish from her, he sits at the dining room table where she props up a book of Post-it-Notes as big as a blackboard. Behind her, she’s tacked up a gag sign that says, “Parking for Cubans Only.”

Yes, my mother the callejera, is now parked. She’s mostly parked in a recliner that plugs into the wall. A push of the button will practically eject her from her seat like a cartoon character—spiral jack and all. When she’s not sitting in the den watching her novellas, she’s parked in the chair lift that first scarred the wall when it was installed for my father. After he died, Mom couldn’t bear to see it anymore. Eight years later, she had a newer model reinstalled. I think she takes joy rides in that chair.

My mother lives amidst the shambles of her own making and fantasies of her own necessity. She wants to paint the house, fix the crumbling concrete front steps, install central air. None of that will happen. Nor will she swap out her antique boiler for natural gas. Life is just so on Asylum Avenue. And life two hours away from Asylum Avenue is waiting for my mother to run out of heating oil, for her cable cum lifeline to go out or for my mother to fall as if she were the star of a bad commercial.

Life a car ride away from my mother is waiting for shambles to become ruins.




Lies My Mother Told Me

When I heard that Leslie Starobin, a Boston-based artist, was looking for first generation Jewish immigrants from Latin America for her series of montages called “The Last Address,” I got in touch with her. She was thrilled to hear from a Cuban-American Jew — a so-called Juban — and felt it was fortuitous that I was virtually right in her backyard.

I didn’t have much to offer Leslie in the way of the physical objects, such as the clothing, visas and report cards that are often central to her work. “Castro took everything” was the refrain of my childhood. What I do have is a picture of my mother at 19 in which her lips are dark and her eyebrows are arched like a movie star’s.

Compiling a family’s oral history is integral to Leslie’s artistic process. To that end, Leslie extensively interviewed my mother, who remembered that she sat for the picture at a photographer’s studio in downtown Havana after a long day of classes at the university.

My mother also told Leslie her signature story. “I still see Manzanito after he was gunned down. We called him Manzanito because his cheeks were red and full — like little apples — manzanitos.” Manzanito was Jose Antonio Echeverria, the president of the University Students Federation, who had led an attempt to overthrow Fulgencio Batista by storming the presidential palace. On March 13, 1957, Echeverria was slain by Batista’s henchmen — only steps away from the famous staircase leading into the University of Havana. My mother has recounted taking a quiz in a nearby classroom when she heard the gunshots.

“Your mother told you that she went to the University of Havana?” asked Olivia Kantor, who knew my mother in Cuba, and was friendly with her after they both immigrated to Brooklyn.

She was surprised — more surprised than when I called her out of the blue and introduced myself as Harold and Matilde Bolton’s oldest child.

After Olivia exposed my mother’s half-century-old lie, I told her that Mom had subsequently earned a master’s degree in Spanish literature. It was the late ’60s and my mother talked her way into the program — secure in the fact that a university transcript was impossible to retrieve from Cuba.

I’m not surprised that my mother, a life-long fantasist, concocted this ruse. At this point, I think she actually believes that she went to the University of Havana. Since my mother’s interview with Leslie this past summer, I’ve tried to talk to her about her undergraduate status. I pointed out that the University of Havana had closed in November of 1956 and didn’t reopen until 1959, when she was already in the United States. There was no way she was in class in March of 1957. She screamed that maybe I was book smart, but I had no common sense.

Whatever book smarts I have, I owe them to my mother. I’d go wide-eyed each time she told me that Miguel de Unamuno lost his faith when he was just five years old. My bedtime stories revolved around Don Quixote’s adventures with the hapless Sancho Panza. Mom made her own stunning montage of narratives. And in the process she educated the both of us.