I visit my mother twice a week in her nursing home at Hebrew Senior Living. I go out of duty, out of an ancient, vestigial guilt. I often time many of those visits to sit in on her Wednesday Spanish class. Her nonagenarian students, a decade older than she, jerk awake when she starts testing them on vocabulary they will never absorb. To them, she is an alien—the assignation given to her when she first came to America in 1958.
My mother is in front of a whiteboard — the Spanish words soon to be scribbled in thick black marker. It is an X-ray of her old blackboard. Once the high school teacher, she promotes herself to La Professora holding a baton-like stick to point to the verbs and nouns that she has spelled out for her assistant. Most weeks the assistant is Tedra, the Life Enhancement coordinator, who tries her best to live up to that sad job title.
I have been overhearing my Cubana mother’s language lessons all my life, and they have been a mixture of familiarity and embarrassment that comes with knowing how fierce and unpopular she was as a teacher. When I was a little girl, she ran a makeshift summer school in our basement. I listened from the top of the steps as she alternately conjugated verbs and disciplined kids. I stole a peek of her unfurling her language on the blackboard. “Everyone must know Spanish,” she ordered the kids. “There are more countries in the world that speak Spanish than French.” She resented that French was the traditional language of diplomacy. “It’s a stupid choice,” she huffed.
Kids threw the verbal equivalent of spitballs at her when they made fun of her accent. She only said “sheet of paper” once in front of them. Going forward it was always a “piece of paper.” She recovered from that rare moment of vulnerability when she called them malcriados — brats— refusing to translate the word.
Now on Wednesday afternoons, my mother is a performer dying on stage.
Five years ago, I brought my mother to Hebrew Senior Living to be closer to me in Boston. I know the exact date and year she was admitted because it was the day before my 25th wedding anniversary. It was October, and leaf-peeping was restricted to whatever color presented itself alongside the highway. The weekday ride felt like the old Sunday drives my father took us on to iron out our kinked-up nerves. The ride up from Hartford on Interstate 84 was alternately sulky and tense. It was the last time she was in a passenger car.
Grittily yet quietly she said, “I don’t want you to leave me like a sack of potatoes in this place.” Suddenly frightened, she asked me if it would be difficult to learn new television channels. And why was I taking her away from the town where she lived for 60 years — the town where her first and only house was. No matter that she hadn’t lived in that house for years. There is always comfort in proximity. And then this, a new verb for me: estas secuestrandome. For a blazing moment, I felt like the kidnapper she said I was.
When I pulled up to the nursing home, it took three of us to transfer my mother from the car to a wheelchair. There is no other way to say this: She was dead weight. Among the three of us wrestling her out of the passenger seat was a male nurse at whom she screamed over and over — No me toques. She didn’t want him to touch her. And to me: No me dejes aquí. The sound of unbearable abandonment not to leave her there rang in my ears long after I settled her in a room. God, how I wish I could force-quit that desperate scene from my mind.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Tedra intercepts me in the hallway and tells me there’s no Spanish today; there’s a special program. “Elton John is here,” she says excitedly. “He’s in the house for Pride Month!” And I wonder if Tedra believes the real Elton John has come to Hebrew Senior Living.
Ersatz Elton is expected to rock the space that is variously the home’s synagogue, auditorium, and arts and crafts room. I peek in before I pick up my mother. The reading table where the Torah scroll is rolled out to the week’s chapter has been pushed to a corner.
I find my mother in her room, chin on her chest, asleep in her wheelchair. She’s parked in front of a television show where domestic violence passes as entertainment. I squeeze her shoulder to wake her.
A long time ago she noticed that I never greeted her or said goodbye with a kiss. “I’m your mother,” she said to me with sorrow and anger — two feelings that have always existed in her side-by-side. “You’re my first born. My bichora,” she said using the Ladino-Hebrew word for eldest girl. “You never hug me. Dame un abrazo.” I pretended not to hear her, and she never asked me again. In the old days, I regularly told her how much I hated her. That doesn’t exactly translate into not loving her. And yet, I cannot show her affection. Too much happened with this ruthless mother of mine who, for years, berated me and pulled out clumps of my hair.
At the entrance to the synagogue, Tedra is handing out colorful rubber bracelets for Pride Month. She says, “Happy Pride Month, Matilde.”
“What is this porqueria?” My mother is worrying the bracelet she considers junk.
“We’re celebrating the gay community,” I tell her. I take a deep breath. “Think of it as celebrating Adam.” My son is her favorite grandchild by a million miles. My mother has four grandchildren and they call her Abu, the only version of Abuela they could get out when they were little. But only Adam counts to her. The two girls are older and less favored than the boys. “I like boys better, I can’t help it.” This excuse is as close to an apology as Abu offers.
Tedra takes the bracelet out of my mother’s hand and slides it over her blue-veined wrist and my mother balks. “Wear it for Adam,” I say.
At the mention of her grandson’s name, she goes dreamy and mutters, “Mi nieto. Lo quiero con todo el corazón.” Her heart is full of love for this grandson. “Mi niño lindo. Lo quiero mucho, sabes?” I know. Her beautiful boy. The boy she lives for.
Adam came out eight years ago when he was 16. He shuffled into the kitchen, as his father and I were eating breakfast, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and finally blurted out, “I’m gay.” “Oh, sweet boy,” we said. Niño lindo, querido hijo. Our beautiful boy. Our beloved son. Now a man.
“Who’s going to tell Abu?” he said at the time.
It hurt my heart that he had to ask. “I’ll handle her,” I said.
“I won’t go back in the closet when I’m around her,” he said.
“Never.” We hugged, we cried, we even laughed. Oh, Abu. If only, as the blessing goes, you could join us in this “season of our joy.”
The first time I told my mother Adam was gay she still lived in the family home on Asylum Avenue — the house crumbling along with her life. By the time finances and poor health forced her to sell, she was barely negotiating the stairs.
“Don’t talk about my grandson like that,” she said, looking out the kitchen window. Over the years, she had taken to rooting herself in that spot to miss Havana, miss the great beauty that she was. “Mi nieto nunca puede hacer como asi.” Her grandson could never be that way. I said firmly, “This is who he is.”
My mother’s love for Adam drives her mad. It’s a pure love that her homophobia cannot taint. She doesn’t know what to do about Adam, who has wildly disrupted everything she thought she knew about the world. Adam es un ángel adorado. Adam es mi nieto amado. “Adam cannot be gay,” she said in English — a cleaving between her precious mother tongue and the invading English language. “It’s a phase,” she said as if bartering. And then, grasping for any explanation: “He’s confundido — confused.”
We are among the last to get settled before Ersatz Elton makes his appearance in the makeshift synagogue/auditorium. He is here to sing this sleepy crowd into joyous, raucous awareness. Ayayaya. Barminan, my mother moans. The Ladino word is a barbed incantation, resting somewhere between a prayer and a curse. She is pleading with God to ward off what she considers a tragedy — her beloved grandson loves men.
Elton glides into the room. No fanfare. No majestic entrance. No flickering of lights as he strolls down the center aisle. He tips his glitzy derby with the white plume to one and all. He looks like he’s wearing a wedding cake atop his head. If Elton takes off his spectacle of a derby for just a moment, he will be just another bald guy with a paunch.
Some of the tiny orbs of bright lights rimming Elton’s pink heart-shaped glasses are burnt out — the rest blink like a seizure. He also sports a jacket missing some of its mirrored sequins. It strains at the seams and is emblazoned with a loud, proud Union Jack across the back.
At the front of the space, Elton sets up an electronic, xylophonic keyboard— a stand-in for a piano. His backup band is an iPad streaming canned music that registers like a cardiogram on the screen.
Elton greets the room with a spectacularly bad English accent, as thick and sugared as the frosting of the wedding cake doubling as his derby. He seems to think he can sing like the real Elton, too. Good for him. But when he warms up, his laddering scales crack rung after rung. Oh, Elton.
Nevertheless, we are in for some solid Top 40. Surprisingly, though, Elton’s first song is a slow one. He sings, imploring in one long breath, to not let the sun go down in a place where most of the people bay at their reflections in darkened windows at sundown. Warming up the audience, I suppose.
My mother turns to me and stage whispers, “This is your husband’s fault. Adam’s that way because of his pajaro brother.” There it is—the word I was steeling myself for—the Spanish pejorative for a gay man. Un pajaro, a bird. Adam’s uncle.
The pajaro is circling in her mind, alighting on a branch as Elton sings “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Then her voice breaks through Elton’s squeaky rendition. She points at him and asks, “Is he a pajaro?”
I try hard to measure my words, to be kind even, summoning the same spirit I have when I tie her bib, dab at her mouth, and roll her knee-highs over her calves. I am a middle-aged daughter, overcoming a decades-long reluctance to touch her bruja of a mother.
Tedra comes over and asks if everything is alright. I calmly tell her that I will wheel my mother back to her room if she has another outburst “Que mi importa!!” I don’t care, my mother yells. “Take me back to the room.”
I hate her room. It’s small, with a hospital curtain between two beds — an insulting illusion of privacy. There’s the fluorescent light’s sickly green caste, the tangy stink of urine and feces. To be stuck together in that room watching Dr. Phil is punishment for us both — her for accumulating a thick binder of offenses that got her thrown out of a lovely assisted living place and me for not being creative enough to come up with a better living situation for her.
Elton looks our way as he buzzes through “Crocodile Rock.” But he is indomitable, palliative even as he continues to belt out tune after tune over my mother’s ruckus. She harmonizes her dissonance with him, and he ignores her as he keeps time with a white patent leather platform shoe.
Tedra and the aides are dancing in the aisles. They sway in place with the patients who can stand. The wheel-chaired folks dance in their seats. Some of the aides push them into the aisles, swinging them this way and that. This time the synagogue transforms into a surreal ballroom while Elton sings “I’m Still Standing.”
Karen, who is usually in the hallway on a stretcher moaning and clawing at the air whenever I visit my mother, is on her stretcher across the aisle. She vigorously keeps time with her shaky left hand. I’ve never seen her reactive, let alone happy. She looks to be about my age, 60. My guess is that a stroke landed her in this place. Dear God. Barminam. Don’t leave me here like a sack of potatoes.
Now, Karen gleefully waves a Pride rainbow flag with her good hand. Elton has her grinning; I can read her lips — she’s singing every word of “Bennie and the Jets.”
I can tell Karen’s impromptu singing lines up with her memory of high school dances. I know those dances — gyms smelling like sweat, lights on low but not too low. The chaperones turning a blind eye to couples dry humping. “Daniel” was the slow dance everyone in the high school gym was waiting for. In those days, the real Elton’s voice came out of tinny speakers that barely broadcast in stereo. When Elton sang about Spain, it seemed impossibly far away. Along with everything else.
Elton sings in the synagogue and people sing along with him, which, after all, is the goal. Everyone knows what they were doing the first time they heard Elton John pop and sparkle his way into their lives with that line.
We’re entrenched in the ’70s and nobody wants to leave. It was the era of disco, sex and weed, and then more sex — all the things that scared my mother on my behalf. Everyone had Saturday Night Fever. I did, too, as I listened furtively to Elton on a transistor radio. The music I desperately listened to often drifted from the open windows of passing car. On our car radio, my parents played terrible covers of pop songs, Elton John included in the mix.
I saved up and bought 45s of tunes I heard on the weekly countdown. One night my mother thought I played “Rocket Man” too loudly on the hi-fi in the living room. She broke Elton’s shiny record in half, along with my pounding heart.
“We shake with joy, we shake with grief. / What a time they have, these two/ housed as they are in the same body,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver in the short poem titled, “We Shake With Joy.” The mingling of joy and grief has yielded newfound compassion in me. Mi pobre madre has always been at war with herself. Poor woman.
I ask Ersatz Elton to sing “Bennie and the Jets.” He cues up the song. When it finally drops, a poignant recognition dawns on my mother’s face. Joy and grief. Back in the day, Señora Bolton’s high school students asked her to help them translate that song into Spanish. My mother — conductor of military-style conjugation exercises — eased up and agreed. She worked on the Spanish version of “Bennie” for weeks. Bits of the song’s Spanish flotsam and jetsam still roll in and out of my mind.
Elton sings about kids shaking it loose together—Hay chicos vamos a sacudir sueltando juntos—and spotlights changing the weather—El reflector esta poniendo reflejo en algo que cambia el clima.…Be-Be-Be-Bennie y el Jets
Then, my mother smiles—an event as extraordinary as watching an Elton John impersonator at a nursing home. Karen is still waving the Pride flag. I’m convinced she will end up flinging it across the room. Instead, she stammers the words perfectly, “Be-Be-Be-Bennie and the Jets.”
My mother sings the song’s Spanish undercarriage. “Hay chicos,” she begins. By the time she reaches the second stanza, she’s singing full throttle. At this point, it doesn’t matter that our Hebrew Home Elton can’t hit the high notes. The place rocks anyway with shouty, jangly crooning and swoops of wheelchair dancing.
I spontaneously wheel my mother into the aisle. Ersatz Elton has been singing for an hour and we’re so close to him we see sweat streaming down his face. I push her to the left and then to the right. It’s a bulky dance we’re doing. My mother and I are dancing–just as we used to when she swung me round to the brassy, scratched-up LP of another Bennie/Beny—Beny Moré de Havana.
“Estoy mareada.” She is dizzy just as I was when she twirled me around to Beny until my head was in the stars.
“Do you want me to stop?”
“No. Sigue, sigue—Me gusta. Es como un carrusel.
And then my mother says in a voice choked with tears, “Por favor, diga a Adamico que voy a enseñarlo ‘Bennie y el Jets’ en Español.” She wants to teach her favorite grandchild the Spanish version of “Bennie and the Jets.”
The two of us continue to spin to electric music, solid walls of sound. Ay Mamá, just like Elton says, we step out of ourselves and are somehow plugged into the faithless. Although most of his audience’s movements are severely limited, Ersatz Elton must feel the standing ovation intended for him at the end of the concert. Like Bennie, he’s made his audience ageless, the moment timeless.