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Covid Journals: Talking Opera with Alexa

By Alexandra Svokos

During the Fall 2020 Semester, The Oppy will be publishing submissions from members of the Stern community about how the Covid-19 Pandemic has impacted their experience in and out of the program. If you wish to write about your own experience, please e-mail us at oppy@stern.nyu.edu

The following entry comes from Langone student Alexandra Svokos.

You know those scrawled messages on hospital doors and overpasses at the start of every zombie movie? The first thing I saw looking out at the beach beneath my parents’ apartment in Florida was the word “JESUS.” Someone had painstakingly written it out in palm leaves and seaweed, with another word beneath I couldn’t quite catch. JESUS SAVES? JESUS SAVE US? 

It was mid-July, and while coronavirus cases were coming under control in New York City, I found myself in the new American epicenter, one that had apparently learned nothing from the morgue truck seven blocks from my Chelsea apartment. My 83-year-old grandma lives alone in Florida; usually my parents are there, too, but they had ditched in March to be with my eight-months-pregnant sister. It took a pandemic for me to understand I got my stubbornness from my grandma, a 4-foot-11 southern Italian matriarch. She refused to leave her own home. I refused to believe she was safe by herself there, and as a young, healthy person with remote work and no newborn to take care of, I realized if I wanted someone to be with her, it had to be me. 

For 10 days, I picked up meals from my grandma’s apartment (you try getting a Nonna to not feed you), and hid away in my parents’ apartment on the floor below, listening to podcasts for company and burying myself in work and my summer classes. I only left to get a Covid test at an urgent care center, eight days after my flight, when it was more likely to be accurate if I had been exposed on the way down. I got my negative result on a Saturday morning and practically sprinted upstairs to hug my grandma. She made me pancakes. We were giddy just to be within a few feet of each other, drinking our coffee. 

You have to understand: my grandma and I are quiet people. Smiling while sipping coffee is like a dance party for us. 

Nonna and I had not been alone with each other for a prolonged period, well, ever. We have a loud, extensive Italian family, and on top of worry about coronavirus and, uh, hurricane season, I also worried about how we’d get along, alone, for a few weeks. Famously, as it turns out. Every weekday I’d work, she’d drop off lunch, and if I didn’t have class at night I’d go over for dinner and stay for a few hours talking and watching the news and Netflix. On weekends we’d spend time at the beach or just sit quietly working and reading, naturally fitting together in our shared, admittedly limited capacity for active socialization. 

We learned a lot in our month together. I learned I got much more than stubbornness and a knack for cooking from her. She learned how to say “Pavarotti” with an American accent so Alexa would understand her. I learned how to make manicotti. She learned how to use the Publix app. When Hurricane Isaias seemed to be heading our way and little northeastern me was freaking out, she rolled her eyes and taught me how to handle a hurricane. When we turned on Netflix and it turned out she’d stayed up later the night before watching a few more episodes of “Cable Girls,” I laughed and taught her the term “binge watching.” 

But it was never lost on us that this was all happening with the backdrop of a massive pandemic and a catastrophic national response to it. What that looks like in Palm Beach County is much different from what it looked like in New York in the spring. The constant sirens, the paranoid looks on the street, the stories of neighbors lost: that’s not happening where people and hospitals are spread out. I felt like Cassandra wearing my mask every time I stepped outside my apartment door, talking to our building staff about the importance of mask use and hand washing. But we know: this could rip through a building before anyone even knows it’s there.

So on top of our fun conversations about shows and books, there were the other conversations. I took a deep breath and asked my grandma to promise me she’d go to a grocery store at most once a week. I told her she couldn’t play bocce with other people in the building. I told her she could visit her friend who’d just had a heart attack, but only if they sat outside, masks on, a few feet away from each other. I wondered again and again if I was being crazy, and then I remembered the sirens. 

A few weeks in, I interviewed a playwright and told him I was with my grandma. “Oh that’s so nice,” he said, “because you know she’s been through so much worse than this.” And of course she has. Making use of our time together, I asked about her life. She told me about WWII, when Nazis took over her family’s farmhouse and both sides were blowing up bridges and roadways all over the place. She told me about all the things her mom tried to make bread out of because they were starving, and even after the war, they’d slaughter a pig or two a year and that was all the meat they had — so, yeah, ordering a pack of pork chops from the Publix app to arrive at her door within a few hours was a marvel. 

We talked about how she came to Brooklyn a few years younger than me but already with three kids in tow, how she learned English, how she learned how to drive, and about the civil rights movement, how her marriage was successful because she pushed for independence — like getting a job — and Nonno didn’t stand in her way. 

“So you can stop worrying,” she said, driving me to the airport to go back north. “I can take care of myself.”

Stubbornly, I had to agree.

Photo credit: Alexandra Svokos

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