It's her annual visit back to the echos and corners of her other home. Living in polite cornfields and a healthy diet necessitates flights to noise and insight and ventures and laughing and in between beef ribs and swedish meatballs and the best fried chicken in the world we argue the same arguments we have had since twenty - five years ago.
"...Remember the Miss America contest and they asked her if she'd pick work or family and you said work and I said family but your family wouldn't couldn't fill the place of work but family or the idea of it is more important to me I am too shy stop laughing I am that book when we first got together My Name Is Asher Lev but I think now I understand oooh real apples so it's almost healthy how deeply complicated that decision would be to tell the truth over protecting your family art is brutal but that what you have to see you always said that no really are you going to eat that..."
He was already living across the hall from Florence the day we moved in in 1961. He never spoke to us kids and us kids never spoke to him but we knew to be respectful and silent as he came and went.
Later when Florence got sick, I bumped into him more. We started giving each other a slight nod at some point, but mostly it was still the Lower East Side gaze we all do from the corner of our eye, letting the person know “I-see-you-I-still-don’t-talk-to-you."
I was spending yet another sunny day unburying Florence’s life from all the papers she kept. Hit a wall, took a break, got a cafe con leche from the Dominican place that used to be the Giorgianni Brother's market. I needed to cry and caffeine makes it go faster.
There he was, pushing his shopping cart full of laundry to the lobby door. He pointed to a newly-posted death notice.
And then, for the first time, after not a word in fifty years - not a single word - we talked.
“Hannah’s brother?” he asked.
No it was Shia on the third floor who died.
Well, Shia had to be late 70's because he and his wife were younger than my parents.
"70's? That's young. I'm 91."
And after fifty years, and after our very first words, I finally got to meet Hyman.
He takes care of himself. Sure, his nephew out on Long Island keeps an eye on him. And sure, the Vet Administration gave him home aides but what for. He has LifeLine. "Just like having a person there." Still, the Vet Administration's been great to him. Full disability.
World War II I asked?
”Yeah. I got captured in France. Was a POW in Germany. Stalag 11B." After the war, all the guys would get together. He doesn’t go to the reunions anymore. "Most of these guys have checked out,” he said.
I reached down to help him get his cart up the five scattered steps to the lobby door - the same steps we needed two maintenance guys to get Florence in and out of the building.
"Nah. I got a system. I'm still pretty strong!" and before I knew it, he had bump-bump-bumped the big cart up each step.
The blond mommy and her little blond boy, dressed like Robin Hood, were coming out of the building. When I was growing up I could count on three fingers all the blond people in the neighborhood. Now it's normal.
Seeing the kid, Hyman lit up like a Ferris Wheel at night. “Whatcha got there, huh!?"
And then in the time honored Lower East Side act of loving family, he pulled out a $1 bill (25 cents in my day) and stuffed it in the little boy's hand. "Here! For Halloween!"
The mommy turned to her boy “What do you say?"
"Thank you!" Robin Hood answered promptly and he and Hyman grinned at each other before the kid and the mommy headed out to Sherwood Forest or maybe the Avenue A bus.
Hyman turned back to me. "I'm going on a cruise."
The nephew out on Long Island taking you some place warm? I asked.
“Nah.” A mischievous twinkle in his eye. "Guess where?! Europe! I'm flying into Rome and then taking a cruise all over Europe. Athens."
With your nephew? I asked.
"No. By myself."
I looked so shocked he got this big grin and I saw the young soldier who got grit and guts and verve and survived a POW camp.
"People see an old man alone, they're very helpful,” he said with a shrug but still with that wicked fun twinkle "I told them, don't give me no 6-months-from-now-deal because I don't know if I'm going to be around then. Gimme something now."
Both of us waiting for the old elevator, the day whirled around me with light and sun and crisp air and coffee and old newspapers and piles of paper and death notices and scattered steps and little boys in Robin Hood outfits and dollar bills appearing out of nowhere and a person’s life I had lived next to for years and years and years and finally met.
The elevator arrived. The old doors took their usual time to open.
"Gotta do this. This trip is my last hurrah. Then I'll go quietly,” Hyman said. And with that, he bump-bump-bumped his big laundry cart into the elevator.
Starting Out: The early 70's. When we still lived at home with parents in different states of involvement. There were no cell phones. There was no texting. In fact, the kid I liked was homeless and crashed a lot at Gypsy's on 2nd and A. So Dating meant meandering fruitlessly around Washington Square hoping to crash into him, along with my friend who was hoping to crash into the boy she liked (he was a male hustler uptown so we never knew when he'd show up).
Once we bumped into the boy we liked Dating was Folk City open mike night (no longer there) or Bagel City on 6th Avenue (still there). When it got dark enough and the park was technically closed Dating became serious, climbing up on top of the forts of the playground built for kids to crawl all over, and groping under coats and pants. After, maybe they'd walk us home, hoping to get an invitation to sleep over - not so much for sex as much for shelter on the living room couch.
The So-Called "Adult" period: It was the 80's. Dating was usually running into him at a bar everyone went to, and then taking him home because our apartment was the best and closest. Dating meant afterward, the nonchalant "oh yeah um thanks, see ya" and then rushing into the dining room to discuss endlessly over cigarettes (mine) and juice (my roommate's) everything about him. The talks were the majority of Dating.
The I'm Settled Down Now period: It was the 90's. There was no dating We were all grown up, having made fast pronouncements at neighborhood restaurants like Arturo's (no longer there) and then living together and being seen as a permanent fixture where our two names were said so often together they mushed together. After the break-ups there were terrible affairs which looked like dating but really was just heartbreak after a documentary or kung fu movie at the Quad (still there), Village Cinema (still there), or St. Marks (not still there)
There Are Other Things More Important period: Millennium. Dating meant knowing that living together was now more about how habits meshed. To find out there were brief dinners, drinks, lots of coffee in cafes (still there), and many, many emails. Surprise. The love must go further than the housekeeping.
"The future is open wide. Dream of better lives the kind which never hate": There's only a sense that time is running out and standing quiet and still once it hits the street. Dating becomes a single word of yes and walking through crisp air together listening to the not-knowing-finding-out of a heart.
It was one of those rare departures from home, the kind only Doc seemed to be able to pull out of me. Visiting a ramshackle house with a long picnic table booming with food, almost much to drink and smart minds to enjoy, I found myself unexpectedly alone with another guest.
She was a New York sparrow. Looked delicate and cute, but was tough as nails, could survive anything and had.
It wasn't the champagne that loosened tongues and poured story into waiting ears. It was the relief of finding another who understood.
Years ago, the Sparrow’s mother fell ill. The Sparrow picked up the reins of care and began the sometimes slow and often much too fast changing of places - the daughter becoming the mother and the mother becoming the daughter.
Soon taking a shower at the place the mother lived in was no longer an option. The tub was insurmountable, the shower stall too small.
One day the mother and the Sparrow got invited to a home which had a shower stall big enough to accommodate the mother's walker.
The sponge baths had been O.K., but to have a real shower…could the Sparrow give her a shower? the mother asked.
Can you imagine having to ask your child to bathe you? Can you imagine washing your mother’s vagina and anus?
The Sparrow said of course. Of course she would. It was then she realized this shower would require her to be in the stall with her mother. That was an intimacy they had never before shared.
It wasn't that they didn't like each other or love each other. They did very much so. But it wasn’t that kind of warmth and physical affection so often seen on Leave it to Beaver or The Partridge Family. Or even Star Trek.
So the Sparrow packed a swimsuit so she could get in the shower with her mom.
When the time came and the mother was carefully situated and the water was pouring down, the Sparrow, snug in her suit, stepped into the shower.
There is that moment with an ailing or elderly parent where their sudden nakedness fills your eyes and goes beyond skin and breasts and and scrotum and tufts of hair in quiet places. That is the moment you are never to be their child again.
And so it was with the Sparrow. The privilege of being a daughter now lived in rounded shoulders, paper-thin fragile skin, a hand full of tremors and very tired eyes. All that was left was the greater need to be clean and a desperation to not be humiliated in the process -a clinging to hope that, in such nakedness, some dignity might still clothe the soul...
... The Sparrow looked down at her swimsuit and wondered at the barrier she had placed between her and her mother. She wondered what it was at this point in life about seeing her mother naked and having her mother see her naked. She was 60, her mother near 90. What was it that had put the suit between them in the first place...
She slipped the suit off, and with both of them now naked, she began to gently soap up her mom. And as she did, they both started to laugh and weep and laugh and weep and laugh until there was no difference between what poured from the shower head and what poured from their hearts.
*** Plenteous grace with Thee is found, grace to cover all my sin; Let the healing streams abound; make and keep me pure within. -- Charles Wesley
There was such an assumption of it being OK to smoke. Like putting on deodorant or finally getting to wear an under-wire bra. A Bar Mitzvah almost where the incantation rumbles out of a cardboard pack "Today you are troubled enough to have to sit down and contemplate life as deeply as one can while smoking on the toilet."
Many years ago, I sat a few seats away from Florence at a WOW performance of the play Claire wrote about her. As I recollect, the humor was pretty broad and the depiction of Claire's mom not exactly flattering, so I gave Florence a few nervous peeks to see if she was upset at all. She was laughing her head off. -- Carola
I'm not sure if this is an apocryphal story but I seem to remember you told me that when you told Florence we had broken up, she hit you. Not that I condone parental violence, but I appreciated the strength of her feelings for me which I perhaps didn't recognize before. It was nice to have her on my side, even if it meant she wasn't taking your side as one might expect... Also, even though in conversation you knew Florence reveled in language, it was in her letters to me that I really caught the full blast of her storm of words, ideas, and the sometimes incomprehensible connections between them. And there was the sometimes florid, over the top, extravagant, extremely complimentary, appreciation (was it love?) she expressed for me. I was sometimes awed by her. -- Joni
When I think of your mom, I picture her sitting at the piano, either playing herself or giving the lessons.That's the image that keeps coming to mind. I also remember you playing the violin with her at the piano. She treated us like grown ups, even when we were little kids. She didn't talk down to us. --Marcy
We were too poor for a decent wedding. So our first time together spent walking around New York. We didn't even have carfare. [Eventually] we saved money to go to the Catskills. [But before that] we went mostly to churches and synagogues because they didn't cost. -- Seymour [Florence used to refer to him as her "first husBANd"]
I remember that she gave herself a tap dance class for her 65th birthday. And how surprised I must have looked: one can be 65 and still do everything! And us walking around, talking, through the rather dark and empty streets, and you saying "wait a sec" and walking into a lesbian bar because Florence might be there. And her voice. And the way she smiled. And going to the diner around the corner for lunch. [And] Florence being somewhere in the neighbourhood, calling, but not willing to come up. -- Joke
She taught me to pronounce Dvorak correctly (silent "D"). We took long, slow walks on Avenue C and ate in the yuppy cafes that have replaced the bodegas. And talked and talked and talked. I admired her intrepid character - strength against adversity. And against the humiliations and diminishment of old age. She had a complete world view, uncompromised by hedonism or sentimentality. And fittingly strong opinions. -- Naomi
I have an experience in faith related to Florence. I was actually amazed at how much her death touched me, and also all these friends and clients that have been passing away in last weeks. (it seems as if I am going from memorial to memorial). So that morning I have chanted and read and even cried for her, and realized that all the positive that I can do in this life time besides healing, I should do. So I called the chapter leader who have asked me to become a group chief (which I declined because of "organization" issues and I was struggling with that) and accepted the appointment. This is totally related to Florence's passing so I thought you should know. PS-and...adding to the last experience..my son just started dating a girl from Coney Island.. -- Nurit
I asked Sissy when she knew she was beautiful. I thought it was when she had her children, her being like the mom everyone dreams of having and goes to therapy to get over the fact they didn't.
So that's why I said, when you had kids, right? She said no. It was when she was only 35, divorcing, raising two boys on her own, working a heartbreaking job saving little babies from bad events and dealing with an aggressive breast cancer that refused to cooperate with some of the treatments. That's when she, every day, pulled it up, that something, that knowing, that grabbing onto the incredibleness of who she knew she was, what she was really made of and how strong she had always been, so that she could live and love those kids and make sure they had a safe home with a great mom in it, the one everyone dreams of having....
Faye is there with her grandson. Her husband, Leslie is now gone a year at least. That means she'll be able to say kaddish at the services next week for him. All I see is that day he boasted how she was the smartest math teacher in the world as she gently put his arm into his jacket. They both survived the war and the camps but met each other here in New York when they came to start a new life, a new year.
Faye is now drained, her eyes watery. She may be facing 90 but she can't quite see it. Her grandson talks animatedly to her, like he is trying to live six lives for her so she isn't so damn lonely dieing without the man she loves.
I go over to say Good Yontiv. The grandson tells me he now is in Los Angeles. No, not the TV business. His girlfriend got into rabbinical school. Thank G-d, I say. Faye beams.
Five men yell and laugh in the back. The Right this, the Left that, Stalinism and....
Doc skips in. Pierogis and kielbasi and little cups of soup. Sour cream, sauteed onions, I have a chocolate egg cream. Talk pours out faster than delicious rain from another season, mothers and lovers and hopes and grief and hunger and peace and dreams. Desire.
For a new year for a new year for a new year.
The men all laugh and voices rise into chords from a Schoenberg symphony. Suddenly a glass breaks on the tile floor.
"Mazel Tov!" we shout to them.
"What!? Now you're married!?" one shouts back.
"No! You're married." we retort.
Faye's grandson is waving to me from the door. I jump up, a kiss on Faye's cheek. She says, pointing to him, kvelling like crazy, "This is my grandson." I don't say I know you told me. I just grin a billion smiles for her so maybe the joy evaporates her permanent tears. I feel my own eyes soften with age each second.
Doc makes me laugh just when I'm swallowing mushroom barley. We talk about all the meals we ate on Yom Kippur. I win. Two years ago from the 35th Street Chinese bakery a pork bun for breakfast before I realized I was eating tref on the holiest of the holies. She's runner up because she made dinner reservations this year for right after the fasting begins.
Since it's between Rosh Hoshanna and Yom Kippur, we don't count the kielbasi.
The men, windbreakser, comfy shoes, relaxed pants, those faces we know in our fathers our uncles our neighbors our lives.
One says, "you sure we're not married?"
"You are," we say. "But to him..." pointing to his old friend.
"What? You thought you were going to be happy?"
"Wasn't the first two times...."
"Good night, girls," they call to us, leaving with little bags of dessert or dinner.
"Good night, Good Yontiv, shona tova, a happy new year..."
Florence took me here I guess in 1976 for a drink. What I remember, so vaguely through exhaustion and booze, was, so that we could have an enjoyable time, I got her a bit drunk on scotch - that being her drink of choice outside the house (the house drink being watered down sherry). I probably had scotch too. We stood leaning against the bar all the way in the back.
I think, again through the haze of exhaustion and booze, that at that time having been recently invited out of her home, I was living up the street and new to the neighborhood. And one night after a screaming match on the phone with my sister about how one would identify the sexuality of our mother, I stormed down to this bar and ordered the second drink I knew about. Rye. Doubles. And got very very drunk. A very very nice man made sure I got home without being killed along the way. After all this was Second Avenue in the mid 70's. When New York was New York and filmmakers were in school preparing to make films about it.
My two visits to this bar gave me a place to go in the neighborhood. I knew no one else, nothing else, was so alone, working as a housekeeper, baby taker-carer, cleaning girl. But now I knew this bar. So I started walking in a lot. And soon the guys behind the bar knew my name and soon I knew the names of their friends and soon we hung out outside the bar and one bartender was my roommate for a while and everyone who lived with me those years were regulars at the bar and when I finally figured out how to not be a domestic but be a college student I did my homework at that bar and if I wanted to introduce my hope for love to my family, I didn't take them to my parents. I took them to the bar because that bar was home.
The call from Penny at 2:13 am. Something is more wrong than the usual wrong.
I scramble for clothes….no, not that tee-shirt! I like that one. I’ll always remember I wore it this night.
I throw on a shirt I hate.
The cab driver doesn’t realize Columbia stops going two-ways at Delancey. He tries to speed on the East River Drive service road but hits all the red lights on Grand.
Does running fast through an empty courtyard in the middle of the night - past the fountain I sat by, down the same stone walkway I played on as a child - does running fast slow down bad things?
Two years of opening Florence’s front door to a constantly changing, always different "normal" - from a woman who could walk to the supermarket on her own - to this moment, a fragile sparrow held together by ancient skin struggling to breathe, her only seeing eye already traveling to other places.
When I ask her “can I take you to the doctor” the sound "no" shoot out, not from parched lips unable to close for fear of suffocation, but from a gut clinging to home.
So I sing the sutras. She sips some water.
There is still too much distress, I tell Penny. Penny is silent. She knows she can’t say anything. It’s not her job, it never was.
I pull out the the wishes made ten years ago. What decision can I live with, what decision can I not, old papers, words scratched out, other neatly typed….I read them again….what decision can I live with, what decision can I not?
Penny listens, tilts her head, raises her eyebrows, nods, listens, tilts her head, raises her eyebrows, nods...
It is near 3am. Doctor Russia calls back immediately. He assures me if it is another flare-up then the hospital can treat it. He assures me if it is the end I can get her home. He assures me I can refuse intubations. He assures me.
It's win-win I say to Penny. I’m calling 911.
I turn back and murmur to Florence “you are in so much distress I want to take you to the doctor I promise you I'll bring you home I promise you I'll bring you back home I promise you I promise…
“O.K.” whispered back - her trust in me, her trust she raised me not to lie.
EMT appear suddenly. HE is tall huge like a redwood. SHE is officious. They both stomp around with many big FDNY emergency bags. Two more show up. Such heavy boots. The neighbors below must know something is happening. SHE orders everyone around.
Suddenly Florence, my mother, my mother is suddenly no longer mine. She is THEIRS and I cannot stop THEM or the massive amount of medical equipments flying out of boxes and bags or the law that says the form we didn't fill out means THEY get to do everything.
When I hear my mother cry out I snap "no more" or "stop that" or something that attempts to get back my mother back to me. One of THEM steps in front of me and keeps me from stopping THEM.
The stretcher doesn't fit in the elevator so THEY tip her up. If THEY went a bit higher she'd be on her own two feet for the first time in months.
SHE tries to put me in the second ambulance.
"No! I'm riding with my mother."
HE points to the front seat - I can only ride shotgun, not in the back holding my mother’s hand.
SHE says, "Stop taking pictures please."
"I'm not taking any of you, just my mother."
SHE says, ”It's breaking HIPAA patient confidentiality."
"She's my mother. I am her HIPAA person."
SHE says, “Ma'am, it's breaking confidentiality."
I mutter under my breath, "I'll take a picture of my mother if I want to." But I'm too tired, too tired, too tired. "I'll take a picture of the coffee cups instead."
HE grins. My camera malfunctions.
I hear a siren from a distance and then realize it is ours.
"Do you understand what that means if we do that?"
"Ok honey, ok sweetheart, I'm sorry, we're almost done,
it's a bit uncomfortable, we're almost done..."
"Your mother was biting the tubes.”
"Yes. She didn't want them."
"I'm glad she was biting them."
"Let's make her as comfortable as possible now."
"I want her home."
"This is Dr. Palliative Care."
"What seems to be happening is..."
"Should I call my sister or can we wait..."
"Call your sister, now. Tell her to get here as soon as
"The lab result just came back. It looks like she had
had a heart attack and that's why..."
"I'm on the train platform. I couldn't find any cash
for a car service."
"Mom, she’s is on the train platform. You have to hang
in there until she gets here. You have to. I know you can do it. Hang in
"You're looking at the machine to tell you how your
mother is doing. I'm going to turn off the machines so that you can just be
"I can't remember the Cole Porter song, You're
the Top. I didn't bring her cassette player to play her old
"Do you know when your sister might get here?"
"My mother will wait. She's going to wait until my
sister gets here."
"Here. I just downloaded Pandora on my I-Phone. It's
not all Cole Porter but similar. Here, put it by her ear..."
"Mom! She’s is here!"
thank you thank you I love you thank you so much for giving
me I'm so grateful for I love you music is the most important thing in my life
I got so much from thank you for my passion I'm so sorry so grateful for this I
love you thank you so much I love you I'm so sorry I love you thank you
THEN SOFTER THAN A
ONE DAY IT CALLED TO
AND I LOST YOU
TO THE SUMMER WIND
Near 6:25am, on the first day of Rosh Hoshanna, while my
sister and I were taking turns holding her hand, the two of us talking to each
other in that allegro molto staccato of words that we've always done, Fred
Astaire, Ela and Sinatra playing into her ear from of the I-Phone of Dr. ER, in
some brief second of some brief exhale, Florence (Frances) Deutsch Moed died.
My sister and I offer profound gratitude to Pearline Edwards, Ghislaine Carrington, Dr. Portnoi, Nurse Peters, Dr. Pool, Dr. DeSandre and the incredible staff of Beth Israel on both the 5th Floor and in the ER, the many FDNY EMT we rode with, and our incredible friends and her students and neighbors and beloved family who loved, supported, and travel this road with Florence and with us these past two years.
Don't let your bullshit compromise either of the above.
Don't lie. Unless you're drunk. Then really don't lie.
Look fabulous in your own clothes. They may have started out as hand-me-downs but they're yours now. Proudly recount their lineage. Never feel ashamed about that.
Never take a taxi.
Don't wear a coat in winter.
Carry your own weight to the point of pathology. Better to err on independence than not.
Refuse to lose at the hands of cowardliness, mediocrity, stupidity, and the need to blend in.
Suffer aloneness at the risk of fitting in with any of the above.
Refuse to feel fear. If you do, ignore it and keep going. Just like Florence did that night during a World War II blackout under the Manhattan Bridge by the movie theater (now a Chinese market).
Always put your work first. Always do your work. Always put your work first. Always do your work.
Rage against the Machine. Even when it looks like it's related to you.
Risk being laughed at by morons when you do something no one else is doing. Just like when Florence put on those roller skates in 1972 and skated up and down Grand Street and all those people laughed at her and then a couple of years every one had disco skates.
Start your entire life over at 60 like you were a 14 year old. Because on some level, you still are.
Fight back just like Florence did all the times someone mugged her or tried to mug her during the 1970's.
Don't EVER quit.
Know that that beer, that sandwich, those shoes, that jacket, those pants, that avenue, that movie house, that proper grammar, that street, that bar, that woman, that dance, that etude, that sonata, that scale, that subway, that bus, that hotdog, that boardwalk, that beach, that ocean is Your New York.
"My mother, Florence Moed, died on Tuesday, September 30, at age 84. She had dementia and had been failing for a while. The immediate cause of death was a silent heart attack and her death was quick. My sister and I are relieved. She was quite uncomfortable and no longer herself.
My mother had a difficult and often unhappy life. She had little love or support growing up from her extremely dysfunctional parents. She dealt with that, in large measure, by focusing intensely on being a serious pianist and piano teacher. Parallel to her devotion to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms was her love of the popular music of her era, sometimes referred to as the Great American Songbook. It drove her nuts that she was so emotionally attached to these songs whose lyrics she sometimes found insufferably sexist. She was a lifelong progressive and a contrarian, especially regarding anything she viewed as bourgeois, such as marriage, sleepaway camp, taxis, and boasting about the accomplishments of one's children or grandchildren. She was very hard-working, honest, both very thrifty and extremely generous, and humble to a fault. She could be extremely irrational and volatile about personal emotional issues that she couldn't handle. Childhood with her and my father was not easy. Nonetheless, despite her quirky and difficult characteristics, she was a great mother. My sister and I were very devoted to her and tried as hard as we could to make her feel better about the life she had lived."
MY PRIVATE CONEY presents IT WAS HER NEW YORK, the short stories that accompany the work-in-progress video and photo collection of the same name (myprivateconey.com - media link - IT WAS HER NEW YORK). The stories and the media explore the tender rubble that holds both my mother, Florence's and New York's soul as one disappears into old age and the other into gentrification. All are real observations and/or experiences with very little tall-tale telling.
Except when it makes the story better.
Please visit myprivateconey.com for additional information and sample works.