Last March, I visited a senior center in Manhattan on its last day of programming before lockdown forced everything in New York City to a grinding halt. At that point in the pandemic, we were flying blind; elbow-bumping instead of handshaking, but not yet wearing masks, even in cramped indoor settings.
I rode my bike to the center, Dorot, on the Upper West Side with a lump in my throat, fearing that maybe I was an unknowing vector of the virus. (Upon arrival, a traveling college class of coughing a cappella singers was performing and my fears abated that I’d be the one to get them sick.) I met a group of women in a weekly memoir class, right as the director broke the news the center was closing. It came as a blow to the women, especially for Yvonne Rossetti, who was 65-years-old at the time.
“I think depression is a killer, and certainly many of us here because maybe we battle depression,” she’d said to the room. “This place is a lifeboat.”
“Yes it is a lifeboat,” the women agreed.
As a year went by, I wondered how these women were doing, If they got sick, did they make it through. If they were experiencing that loneliness they’d spoken so fearfully of when I met them that day. I reached back out and they invited me to their weekly class on Zoom. While many of us are suffering from “Zoom fatigue,” I found these women were invigorated by the virtual platform, and just as committed as ever to their meeting every week to discuss their writing.
Adellar Greenhill, 78, told me about her recollection of that day last March.
“Before we knew about Zoom and what was gonna happen, it was like one of those feelings in the pit of your stomach,” she said. “There’s an intimacy to Zoom that we never would have anticipated.”
The women got some coaching on how to use Zoom, and after some initial hiccups began regularly meeting each week over Zoom. Christine Graf, 75, said they were already used to sharing personal details in their writing. Being able to see a window into each other’s homes felt like an added level of closeness.
“It just seemed like a very natural progression,” Graf said. “It felt good.”
Many of them did get COVID-19 and survived the virus. One member of the memoir group got sick with cancer. She managed to get her memoir published right before her death, a triumph for the whole group. They celebrated her life together over Zoom.
“We’re making that connection every single week, which is great, because a lot of us live alone, and otherwise we don’t connect,” said 74-year-old Marsha Cohen.
“We are not disconnected by social distance. Rather, I will say, more connected,” Sipra Roy, 79, added.
I particularly wanted to know what Rossetii felt, a year into this technological experiment. She said she was a convert too.
“Zoom created a paradigm shift for loneliness,” Rossetti said. “Life was normal with this. And so deep and so rich with this.”
Wendy Handler, who works for the senior center, said when the memoir group started up three years ago it was only supposed to last for four months, but the women refused to abandon it.
“We’re so thrilled that you’re still here,” Handler said. “And that this group means as much to you today as it did when we met in person.”
They’re hoping to convene in the real world, someday soon they said, hopefully in Central Park on a sunny day.