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The breakfast club: Isolation version

Chatting when it's early in Maine and Israeli tea-time, if all else fails, we annoy Alexa: 'Tell us about Yom Kippur.' 'Here is a recipe for kippers.' We laugh: NO, NOT HELPFUL!
Call Mom - photo by N. Bresler
Call Mom - photo by N. Bresler

I have breakfast with my mom every morning now. Well it’s breakfast time for her in Portland Maine. For me, it would be teatime, if I were someone who takes tea. But I’m a coffee person. So is Mom. So at 9:30 a.m. US EST, 16:30 my time, my mom and I share coffee and stories. These telephone visits have become the highlight of both our days. Each of us has been in isolation for three months now. As soon as we can meet again in person, Mom and I are planning to bestow upon each other the Order of the Companions of Honor. It seems that’s a real thing in the UK, except that over there they’ve got an extra ‘u’ in the spelling…It was first awarded in 1917 for “service of conspicuous national importance.” I’m not sure who earned that award back in 1917 or why, but Mom and I certainly deserve the honor today!

Mom is 93 and she is a real trooper. She has been stuck inside her two-room apartment since mid-March, virtually in the dark. Mom is visually impaired, legally blind in fact. This means that she can’t spend her days reading, looking at the gardens outside her window or watching TV. She cannot see enough to work a computer, meaning that she is unable to zoom or skype with any of her friends or family. Books on tape, public radio and even that irksome housemate, Alexa, do provide some comfort. But there is no substitute for human contact, even when it is reduced to a voice on the line, rather than an actual face-to-face visit. So we are both doubly thankful for the telephone, the lifeline connecting Mom with her four children, her friends and other family members. My siblings are wonderful. Each one is amazing, talented, funny, and loving. They call Mom regularly, even though all of them are busy and out in the world. None of my siblings is in lockdown. They are out and about doing essential work in hospitals, a food coop, and a soup kitchen.

On Purim, I looked around me, wondering if this would be my last day outside in Tel Aviv for a long, long time. Turns out, it was. I saw the writing on the wall and I knew I’d be going underground very soon. It took just a couple days before I was in full-scale isolation mode: self-quarantined because of my age, my compromised lungs, and my ability to read. Mom’s senior residence went into lockdown just a week later. That’s when I switched from our previous schedule of weekly calls. I wanted to speak with Mom more often, daily if possible. After some failed attempts at finding an affordable phone plan, I remembered Skype, which offers unlimited phone minutes to any landline or cell phone in the USA for just $3.00 a month. Best $3.00 I ever spent!

I am grateful to be working. Being busy is a blessing. But I would have gone insane long ago, had it not been for the phone and online contact with people I love. I teach online, usually from around 8 or 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. I have purposely cleared my schedule after that in order to be able to call Mom in the morning, her time. I finish teaching, get up from my spot in front of the computer in my home office and pour myself a cup of coffee.  At 16:30 on the dot, I dial Mom. Sometimes she has just finished her breakfast or skipped it altogether and dozed off in the recliner. “What time is it?” she asks. “I just called you, Ma, so what time do you think it is?”  She says, “Oh, it’s 9:30. Good morning!” Then we start our visit, often with a review of Mom’s breakfast fare. The usual scrambled eggs, unidentified side dish and when she’s lucky, an extra portion of grapefruit sections, her favorite, served in an aluminum tray reminiscent of the TV dinners of my childhood. Our culinary reviews are not limited to the breakfast menu. The dinners served sometimes defy description, but Mom makes an attempt to describe them anyway. I am, at times, incredulous. “What?! Cheeseburger soup? Are you kidding?? Is that even a thing?” I ask. Yes, unfortunately, it IS a thing, and sadly it seems to be a favorite of the residence’s chef. Whether or not the other residents like it, we cannot know since Mom has not been able to speak to any of her neighbors since March. Of course, we are grateful that Mom is being served three meals a day in a warm, safe environment. But that doesn’t stop us from dissing the cuisine and strange gastronomic concoctions they come up with.

Once we’re done with the culinary critique, we move on to other matters. We talk about the news, of course. Mom is incredibly well-informed and knowledgeable about local and global issues. We often bring up funny stories from my childhood, and we tell jokes or one-liners in the shorthand that only family members and prison cell mates can do: All we need is one word of a punchline to remember the whole thing. Our favorites are, “Oh no, not salami again!” and “ “You don’t want to count the elevator boy?” from an old Firesign Theater album. Sometimes we do riddles or word quizzes, sometimes we do “serious research,” i.e., googling someone whose name has come up in the news or in a random episode of a TV show I’ve seen…

When all else fails we amuse ourselves by trying to outsmart and annoy Alexa, that nosy lodger, sitting there, eavesdropping, waiting to hear her name or some mention of her papa, Amazon. “Alexa, tell us about Edward Colston” we say.  “Here’s what I found on gallstones,” says Alexa… “Was that helpful?” “NO, NOT HELPFUL!” We both shout at her in unison. “Alexa, tell us about Yom Kippur,” we say.  “Here is a recipe I found for kippers,” says Alexa. “Was that helpful?” “NO, NOT HELPFUL!”

These daily calls are just what the doctor ordered for both of us. They are especially noteworthy since this is the first time, ever, that Mom and I have actually enjoyed long conversations together. Like many mothers and daughters, our relationship has been fraught and fragile. For much of my adolescence we did not speak at all. I often told people, only half in jest, that the secret to my appreciation of my family was having moved halfway around the world at the age of 18.  But that was then.

My friends tell me, “This Corona time has been good for you” and it’s true. I have found my niche teaching online and I am enjoying the apartment which took me over 35 years to pay for. (Ah, Israeli mortgages, the never-ending story…)  But the most gratifying, and most surprising, outcome of this isolation time has been my new-found relationship with my mother. It’s 9:30 a.m. in Portland, do you know where your mother is?

About the Author
Nili Bresler is a trainer and business communications coach with experience in management at multinational technology companies. Prior to her career in high-tech, she was a news correspondent for the AP. Nili holds a degree in International Relations from NYU. In her spare time, she manages communications for the non-profit, NATAN International Humanitarian Aid. Nili made aliya in 1970 and lives happily in Ramat Gan.
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