Twenty-Five Years of The New Yorker with My Mom
I was twenty-six and living in New York City when my boyfriend of three years finally ended our relationship, sending me into a reckoning with every un-distilled idea I had about the durability of true love. I called my mother every day for two weeks and sobbed into the receiver. She listened steadfastly until one day she interrupted with, “Listen, do you need a subscription to The New Yorker?”
“Yes.” I whimpered.
These days I can afford my own subscription, though my copy of the magazine has been on my mom’s dime ever since that day, nearly twenty-five years ago now. Back then, I was living on the west side of Hoboken, NJ, and commuting daily to my job in Secaucus with a sports television show. I earned an annual salary of $23,000 – a sizable leap from the $18,000 I’d made at my former job as a magazine’s receptionist. Still relatively broke, I paid $375 for a room in a dingy apartment that I shared with a co-worker, where, from my window, I watched an able-bodied white guy with a ponytail double-park on my block anytime between midnight and four AM every few nights. He’d pop open his trunk, swiftly hand off crack to two stumbling, skinny black women, and was then gone as fast as he came. You could almost believe you hadn’t seen it.
I spent the next two decades in and out of relationships, jobs, and even careers. I married, had children, and all the while changed my residence at least every two years. The main constants in my life were calling the Conde Nast “Change-Of-Address” line, and conversations with my mother about cartoons, short stories and features in The New Yorker.
My attachment to this magazine was tested really only once during a difficult moment about twenty years ago when they changed their font. I called my mother in a quasi-hysterical state. “What is this? It doesn’t even look like the same magazine!”
“Get over it, and read the “Talk of the Town” on page eighteen,” she advised, before rightfully hanging up. To me, the font-change served as a metaphor for the rapidly gentrifying city, and it stoked my resistance. I was watching younger, richer people take over New York – people who needed a cleaner font, I supposed. Of course, four issues later, I couldn’t recall the previous decades-long font, so my mom was right.
Of all the authors and essays that my mother and I discussed, our most consistently, mutually adored author has been David Sedaris. His comedic/tragic recounting of his family’s history and events met our dark-humor sensibilities head-on.
My mother’s and my New Yorker exchange intensified over this past year, when Covid dealt us a mainly phone-relationship and we were looking for excuses to be in more consistent touch. She and my stepdad, her husband of thirty years, were both terminally ill and telling anyone who would listen that they were racing each other to the finish line. When he won, we invited my mother to come live in Connecticut with our family, for what was predicted to be the remaining two to four more months of her own tapering life.
Once she arrived, she settled right in. While at first she was celebratory of our family’s various music lessons, for instance, she swiftly transitioned to complaining disruptively, particularly during my weekly online piano instruction. Somehow she could hear well enough to condemn my plinking, but not well enough to discern my teacher’s voice through the computer.
“Stop, stop, stop – doing…. that,” she called out from her chair, eyes shut, facing away from me. I compensated by leaning closer and closer to the computer, as if my wide-screen face might somehow drown out her background commentary, but after three lessons of this, I gave up and all but ordered her to stay in her room on Mondays from 1-1:30, stating that I couldn’t focus enough to learn an instrument under such duress.
“I keep forgetting you’re having a lesson, I won’t say anything else,” she sort of, but not really, apologized. When, a few weeks later, the stairs became too dangerous and her confusion transformed to all-out hallucinations, upstairs is where she stayed – and where we all mostly stayed to be with her – until almost the very end of her life.
“Those birds on your shirt — do you move them around?” She innocently asked, pointing toward my chest as I settled her back into her bed after a trip to the bathroom.
“Well, no…” I began, strategizing a humane answer.
“Oh, I see!” She interjected, “They move by themselves. Well, that’s better.” Satisfied, she relaxed her head back on the pillow, and noticed Steve, my husband, and father of her two grandchildren, pass by her door. Looking up at the ceiling, she mused, “He is so good with those kids.”
“He really is,” I agreed.
“And they’re not even his….”
So when said to me, “I just re-upped yours and Steve’s New Yorker subscription for four more years,” I assumed this to be another figment of her confusion, because four years would’ve been our longest renewal stint to date. Of course it was possible that she, clear about where she was heading, considered the extended renewal an epic send off, but sure enough, it wasn’t long before the magazine stopped arriving altogether. A letter followed, stating that the subscription has run out and would she like to renew, but when I brought it to her attention, she looked at me blankly. I tossed it into the recycling bin.
It was mid-March when I started hearing songbirds in the morning – the first hint of the seasons finally turning, and a wake up call for me. I’d had my head down in her twenty-four hour care for weeks, Covid was raging across the country and the arrival of spring brought to me an unanticipated melancholy. My mother now spent her final days on our first floor, silent and still in bed – yet within earshot of the piano. Perhaps now she could listen to my piano lesson, I thought, and even enjoy it. After all, my playing had improved in recent months, and she loved “music.”
Three days before she died, I took note of the mail slot’s familiar slam, and there it lay, our magazine, splayed across the floor like a contorted bird, collapsed after a long flight. I thanked her, all the while studying her body for any sort of reaction.
My mother lives in my memory now, and especially so when I read a recent Sedaris essay, “Pearls”, (May 17th issue) in which he details his version of the pandemic claustrophobia that we all, at some point or another, experienced with our families this past year. He and Hugh, his partner, celebrated thirty years together and bought a second apartment as a solution to Hugh’s anxiety about practicing piano in David’s presence. I found myself caught in an “in-between” moment, so common to those who have recently lost someone. For a split second, I forgot that my mother was dead, before the reality seeped back in. These days there is no banter over features or cartoons, and my piano lessons proceed without outside observation or protest. It’s tempting to say that this saddens me, but it doesn’t. As it goes when someone you love dies, the great stuff they’re missing starts to pile up. My younger daughter learned to ride a bike a week after my mother’s death; my brother was recently re-hired at his job after being furloughed the past year. It’s obvious that I wish she were around to take joy in these types of milestones, and what lives on is my instinct to direct her to page twenty of the May 17th issue, even though she would likely no longer understand why.