Viva la Diva

By Jill Lipton

My mother and I entered The Carlisle’s happy hour to a rousing chorus of “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” the joint jumping. Red, white, and blue streamers hung from the ceiling. A young man in old-timey clothes tickled the ivories of a grand piano. At least fifty people, mostly women, sat on pineapple-patterned couches or mingled, plastic glasses of wine in hand, hammer toes tapping. It was Veterans Day at Mom’s new assisted living community and spirits were high.

I watched my 88-year-old mom transform at this scene. The deep slope of her back nearly vanished, her impressively still-proud bosom now at full attention—her way of making it clear to the few remaining WWII doughboys in the room what they’d been fighting for. Then she stood by the piano and began to sing. It reminded me of the time she got tipsy on an apricot sour at my first wedding and scatted with the band, something my friends now recall more than they do my ex-husband. She also started dancing, doing a little “hands in the air” action. The walker that had scraped along reluctantly as we made our way here suddenly became more prop than support.

That was the diva I knew and generally loved.

It was my mom’s first night here. This happy hour was phase one of the plan to launch her into a new social pond, a plan hatched just hours earlier with the facility’s social director, Kaylan.

The three of us had met in my mom’s new apartment, a petite replica of the home my parents had shared in their Florida over-55 community for more than 25 years. Same off-white couch, brass and glass coffee table, and Mom’s signature peachy accent palette.

There was just one conspicuous absence: my dad, who had passed away six months earlier. Since then, there were numerous falls, calls to emergency service, and dismissals of aides (“too little mayonnaise in the tuna fish” was the offense that sent one packing). The time to act was coming soon. The kicker: Mom’s announcement that each month my two sisters and I simply rotate flying down from our homes up north to care for her, in perpetuity.  In record speed, my older sister secured a pretty apartment in a nice community, my younger sister arranged for Mom’s packing and moving, and I now had the job of setting up her new home and getting the social ball rolling.

Kaylan was key to this plan. “You’ll totally love it here!” she was gushing.

I was grateful she was very pretty, as my mom listened far more attentively to good-looking people. The two sat knee-to-knee, speaking like girlfriends despite their 60-year age gap. I sat nearby, watching what looked like the cool girls table.

“You’ll make so many friends and there’s so much to do! Do you play Mah-jongg?” she said.

“Of course. I’ve played for years.” Though retired from the game, my mother loved to appear an authority.

There were also Dominoes and Arts and Crafts. Turner Classic Movies on their own big screen. Even deli-based lunch excursions. My mother smiled and nodded as each new opportunity for fun was revealed. Then Kaylan shared the exciting news that singers and musicians came to entertain. Bingo.

“I used to play the piano and sing. Light opera,” Mom said.

“Awesome!” Kaylan said.

“Yes, it was… awesome,” my mom confirmed. I was pretty sure she’d never previously uttered the word.

My mother was even going to be paired with an “ambassador,” a seasoned resident who would introduce her around and show her the ropes. They’d meet that very night at 4 pm for a drink, followed by dinner together—because the cherry on this senior fun sundae was a happy hour every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, both in Assisted and in Independent Living.

“You can go to either, but I thought you two would meet at the one in Independent. It’s just happier,” Kaylan said.

I wondered what “happier” meant, but Mom seemed fine. What did I know about cool girl code? Maybe the boys were cuter in Independent.

“See you later, girlfriend.” Kaylan gave my mom a hug and air kiss.

“Yes, girlfriend,” Mom echoed, trying another new word out for size. She was game, that much was clear.

It had gone so well, it seemed like my work there was done. Until the door shut and Mom threw me a look.

“I can’t go.”

“Of course you can.” Where was that confident, cool girl from a moment before?

“How can I? I don’t remember how to talk to people.”

“Certainly, you can talk to people.” I tried to be reassuring, failing to mention that my mother might, in fact, have a point. She hadn’t really had close girlfriends. Instead, she’d surrounded herself with women pretty enough to frame her but not so pretty as to distract. This strategy, unfortunately, included her three daughters. But that never slowed her down before. 

It was hard to imagine that Mom had lost her mojo, given that she’d had it even at my dad’s funeral. My mother looked perfect, having made sure that her hair and nails were done when it was clear his passing was imminent. I, on the other hand, “needed more blusher.” Mourning, I was told, just did not become me. At the casket, I stood close to Mom as she said her version of a final goodbye.

“We picked the right outfit for him.”

 At least my dad passed muster. A casual man, I knew he’d feel overdressed for eternity. But he would be willing to make one last wardrobe sacrifice if it made my mother happy.

We all made sacrifices for my mother. It was the way of the world, or at least her world. For 64 years she had ruled from my dad’s side as queen of her Long Island castle then, when he retired, their Palm Isles palace. Expecting the world to come to her, she hadn’t developed the softer interpersonal skills, like asking questions or listening. No wonder she “couldn’t go” to happy hour.

I tried to remember a time she thought of others, or at least us, her daughters, first. Growing up, she was not the carpool mom. Not the mother who went with you to the menstruation filmstrip (thank you, Ellen’s mom). Certainly not the great-you-got-an-A mom.

Rather, she was the accusing-my-chest-of-not-trying mom when we shopped for my first bra. The your-skin-used-to-be-so-nice mom, as each new freckle appeared. The did-you-gain/lose/redistribute-weight-unfavorably mom. And, of course, the I-don’t-know-why-my-daughters-are-not-confident mom, a statement that made my eyes roll once I learned the definition of irony.

As little girls, though, we were mesmerized by her ablutions, wee handmaidens vying for the honor of handing her a lipstick or bra. My first activity when back from school was adjusting the antennae as she lay on her bed and watched TV. A snack or help with homework was not part of the deal. The deal with her was “watch, and learn.” So I watched as she flirted with the butcher to get a sirloin upgrade. As she worked her connections at Loehmann’s to get the designer blouse put aside. My dad worked hard, adored her, and basked in her glow, except for the occasional time she’d point out that it would have been nice if he made more money.

“I really waited for that mink longer than I should have,” she’d say.

There was one belle at this family ball, forever sealed for me on the Halloween when my younger sister and I were supposed to be made up and dressed by our mother as beautiful ladies. We would join her exclusive club! But Mom got delayed at the beauty parlor, and our dad had to make us up—an epic fail—so he put his jackets on us backward and said, “You’re clowns!”

Every time my husband and I leave the house, I ask him if I have too much makeup on.

I had to remind myself: I have an MBA from MIT, spent over fifteen years as a senior corporate executive, and successfully ran my own small business. I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon, trekked Ireland on foot, and traveled to the Galapagos. I could help my mother get over her social anxiety, get her to happy hour—and then get out of there.

Then again, it was possible I was being played. Maybe social anxiety had nothing to do with it.

I recalled my visit a few months earlier when Mom had one of her falls. Back in my hotel after a stressful few days, scheduled to fly out early the next morning, I was a sleeping pill-and-a-half in the bag at 3 am when my phone rang. The ER was calling. I staggered out of bed, got dressed, and rushed to her side, or at least drove as speedily as prudent for a woman with Xanax in her system. The ER near empty, I quickly found her in a private room, in bed.

“Oh, Jill, thank God you’re here. I can’t move—who knows what’s broken. You’ll have to stay.”

“Don’t worry, mom.” I’d talk to the nurse, review the extent of my mom’s injuries and the estimated length of her hospital stay, and somehow figure it out.

At the main desk, the nurse listened to my questions, raised an eyebrow, and got straight to the point. “I never say this, but sorry, she’s faking it.”

Faking it? Apparently, just before I arrived she’d been a mom-in-the-box, up and down, out of her bed—barely bruised.

I could bail if I wanted to. And I did want to. But a mom is a mom (especially a widowed one), a fall is a fall, and admittedly I am a sap when the guilt card is played. So I stayed a couple of days longer to confirm she was fine.

“Tell me what I should do,” my mother said, bringing me back to the issue at hand: Mission Happy Hour.

“You should smile a lot and ask where people are from, what they like to do, if they have kids, maybe compliment something about them.” Like an Evelyn Woods instructor in friendship, I worked to quickly convince this lifetime Miss Universe that being Miss Congeniality had a value all its own. It wasn’t easy. In my mother’s book, that role had always been filled by the ordinary-looking. As a Miss Congeniality myself, though, I was eternally hopeful.

Mom seemed to be a quick study. After a lifetime as Dorothy, she asked if she should rechristen herself as Dottie or Dot. Something more casual, light-hearted. We tested both to hear how each would sound and Dottie won. A Dottie would make friends. Name settled, the next step was her outfit. As she surveyed her full closet, aka her happy place, she mused on how great she looked in each wardrobe option. I kept myself sane imagining my own happy place—anywhere with a martini.

I mentally reached for my second as she made one last mirror check of herself, nodded, then said to me, “Do you think you should wear sandals with those feet?”

Well, we were almost on the right track.

“Ready to roll, Dottie?” I had never been so eager to get my mom on the move.

“You have to come with me.” She clutched my arm.

“Kaylan said you should meet your ambassador on your own,” I said.

“Jill, you’re so nice and good with people.”

“Of course, I’ll go,” I said, knowing full well that that “nice” was her code for “sucker.” I justified myself by thinking of great supporting actresses. Even after getting their own show or movie, they’d drop in for a cameo to buoy their old star, knowing that soon they’d return to starring in their own happy life. Mom and I made a deal: I’d be her wing woman during happy hour, and join her for dinner only if her ambassador wasn’t a good fit. My little cameo wouldn’t last long.

When my mom’s grand entrance happy hour solo was over, we spotted Kaylan waving. She stood by one of the pineapple-patterned couches, where a trio of ladies were sitting who looked like my mom’s type—flawless makeup, teased and tinted hair, fresh manicures, and outfits the colors of tropics. They were all blondes, making my raven-haired mom even more distinctive, and a soupçon less attractive than her. That fit right into her social sweet spot. I figured one of them was her ambassador and felt optimistic about her prospects.

Kaylan had someone else in mind. She directed us to a woman all in black, save the big gold letters on her tee-shirt that read “Vegas, Baby!” The woman had a shock of salt and pepper hair and wore no makeup. A pack of Marlboros perched on her walker, and her scent of tobacco mixed curiously with my mom’s perfume.

Of all the widows in all the assisted living joints in Florida, my mom had to be paired with this one.

“Park yer keister,” she rasped. “I’m Rosemary. What’s yer name?”

“Dottie,” my mother said, after a pause.

“What’re ya drinkin,’ Dottie?”

“Ginger ale.”

“Ginger ale?” Rosemary looked astonished. “Yer not one of them teetotalers?”

Mom confirmed her apricot sour days were over. Following my instructions—good going, Mom!—she asked Rosemary what she liked to do.

“I like to gamble.” Rosemary perked up. “Ya gamble, Dottie?”

Distracted by the conversation on the nearby couch, I didn’t hear how my mother responded but clearly heard Rosemary’s reply: “Then what do ya do?” 

Rosemary glazed as my mom told her what she liked to do, which of course was to shop. My mother can, and did, make a whole story both of what she recently bought and the blouse that got away. Her companion listened, or tried to, then changed the subject to the weekly bus to the casinos. What would my mother say to that? She told a story about how she once blew on some dice when my dad was playing craps in the Bahamas, which ended up sounding like a scene from Guys and Dolls.

“Huh.” Rosemary seemed to be paying less attention to my mom, and more to her near-empty second glass of white wine.

Kaylan having exited stage left, now I was the one having social anxiety. I had to salvage this happy hour somehow, so I turned to the three coiffed ladies. By this point I knew their names—Beth, Janet, and Anita—and had found out two had daughters named “Jill,” like me. They lived in Independent, but were very open to crossover.

I was essentially pimping my mom. My mantra: For a good time, call Dottie.

Just as I was getting a head of steam with Beth, Janet, and Anita, Rosemary said, forgetting my mom’s name, “We’re outta here, Marilyn. Now we’re going to happy hour at Assisted. There’s a two-drink max here, so ya gotta go there to top things off.”  Apparently, how much you drank in Independent stayed in Independent.

I quickly tried to seal the deal with the lovely blonde trio, who told me they always secured that same spot and my mother was welcome to join them. Then I caught up with Mom and Rosemary on their way to the Assisted Living happy hour, Rosemary’s walker in overdrive.

As we walked in I immediately understood why Kaylan had said it was less happy there. A number of people were nodding off in wheelchairs and there was definitely a step down in the hair and makeup department. My mother was by far the most attractive. Interestingly, there were also far more men. I wondered if this had to do with the different degrees of coping skills between widows and widowers. Perhaps the women were enjoying freedom and friendship, while the men sought continued caretaking, either by a facility or new partner. I had little time to contemplate this trend, though, as Rosemary ditched my mom and sidled up to the bar.

My mother may not have been the kindest person during her 88 years, but I couldn’t help feeling bad for her. She had maintained her lofty status until now. She was self-centered and critical, yes, but powerful, too—and she still knew how to enter a room. Plus, we were nearing the life finish line. I didn’t want to see my beautiful and mighty mom fall.

I settled her into a comfy chair and found the director for this happy hour. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man making a beeline toward my mother. After being advised to dine without Mom’s three-sheets-to-the-wind ambassador, I hurried back to find Mom deep in conversation with “Harold.” Dressed in Barcalounger casual, he looked like an Assisted Living catch. I introduced myself, and then explained the new plan. My mom excused herself with a little twirl, her walker now converted into a purse holder for which I was responsible.

As we walked away she whispered, “He doesn’t even need a cane!”

Over dinner Mom told me that she wanted to upgrade her underwear, maybe get new bedding.

All traces of vulnerability had vanished. My mother’s world order was on its way to being restored.

There had been nothing to worry about. When it came to making her way in this new world, Mom had a secret weapon. She’s a survivor and—Darwin bless her—she knew exactly how to be the fittest. She wasn’t looking for friends as I would be. She was looking for a new kingdom. Maybe it would be on a throne beside Harold, maybe beside another man with an even better head of hair. Or maybe there’d just be a new set of handmaidens.

I could go home now. Back to my husband and close friends, my writing and the occasional martini. All was well at Assisted Living: The diva was back in town.

After a long career in the corporate world and as an entrepreneur, Jill Lipton is now living her dream as a writer. She recently left her apartment and heart in New York City, and can now be found with her MacBook on a lanai in Naples, Florida. Her work has been published in the New York Times “Tiny Love Stories” (newspaper and book), in the Boston Globe Magazine, in Multiplicity Magazine’s “Emerald Blog,” and elsewhere. Find her at

Photos courtesy of author