Today is my Aunt Olga’s birthday.
Olga Bloom meant a lot to the musical and cultural world. She founded Bargemusic, a floating concert hall which countered the standoffishness of more traditional concert halls, and brought music to the masses.
She meant even more to me. Like, everything. No disrespect to my parents, rest their souls, but without my aunt I’d be in a padded room with my arms wrapped around myself in a permanent hug.
I wrote an homage to our relationship in my teen novel SAVED BY THE MUSIC.
I also wrote a personal essay about her as part of a book called TRAVEL IN THE SIXTIES. The proceeds from this book go toward music & art therapy for Alzheimers patients (my aunt suffered from Alzheimers.) It’s available on Amazon Kindle:
(Also available in print.)
Here’s the beginning, to whet your appetite:
The Seventh Floor
By Selene Castrovilla
The automatic doors open with a slight whir, and I walk in from the New York City winter. The Starbucks cups I’m toting have sloshed out many precious drops during the three block journey. I wonder how much coffee will be left for me and my Aunt Olga.
Tramping through this senior residence lobby, I pass several residents hovering like tragic Pac-Man ghosts.
At the desk, I ask admittance to the seventh floor.
The clerk uses the required elevator key. As long as I continually press the button the doors will open on my floor. The ascension is slow and rocky. The Starbucks carrier shakes; more coffee leaks.
My aunt, Olga Bloom, moved to this place only grudgingly. She didn’t want to abandon her barge.
Over thirty years ago she founded Bargemusic, a floating concert hall in Brooklyn. Gradually, she’d forsaken her bed at home for a lumpy but convenient couch on her vessel. She was afloat so much that she lost her “land legs,” stumbling without movement beneath her feet.
At 89, she couldn’t stay on board any longer. She’d fallen off the couch, breaking a rib. She moved here to the residence, planning to write a memoir with my help. But she stalled at the beginning, reciting the same anecdote every time we met.
I was frustrated, but not concerned. My aunt had always been odd.
In her, Alzheimer’s took time to get noticed.
Then, suddenly, the sturdy Aunt Olga who could do anything was gone, replaced by this diminished soul.
Confused, she wanted to go home – to the barge.
When she set out to do so, pussy-footing to the curb and hailing a midnight cab to Brooklyn with no money in her pocket, her fate was sealed.
It was time for the seventh floor.
The doors open. Two residents are waiting, but the hallway aide tells them, “No, no. It’s goin’ up. Y’all gotta wait for the next one.”
One of the residents snaps out, “You always say that.”
The aide answers, “What can I say? I guess they gotta fix these elevators. They always goin’ up!”
The resident huffs and heads into the activity room. I nod at the aide and follow the woman inside.
And there is my aunt – musician, scholar, groundbreaking visionary. Seated with several residents and another aide, she is playing Uno.
She used to have a Buddha-like serene smile. Now, she resembles a bewildered owl. She’s wizened, but that’s nothing new. Her skin was weathered by the outdoors long ago. But she’s shrunken now, hunched into her own skin. Skinny like her skin is melting and all that’s going to be left is bones.
It’s her turn at the game, which no one except the aide beside her knows.
When informed¸ Aunt Olga is alarmed.
“Don’t leave my side; I have no idea what I’m doing,” Aunt Olga implores the aide.
“We’re looking for a blue card, Olga.” The aide’s thick West Indies accent is warming. “Look! You got one! Throw it in!”
My aunt tosses the blue card to the pile.
The aide encourages the next player to participate. I move closer to Aunt Olga and smile.
She’s blank for a moment when she looks at me. Then she says, “Oh, it’s you!”
“It’s me, Aunt Olga.” I’m unsure that she really knows who I am. “What’s going on?”
She frowns and scans the room.
“Do you want to come sit with me?” I ask.
She stands. Her chair scrapes the floor. “Let’s get out of here.”
We plod down the hallway. She’s got her cane in her left hand and I take her other hand in mine. She pauses, gives me a long look, and I see her then – the real her, inside herself, glimmering.
She sees me, too. “Oh, Selene, I love you,” she says.
“I love you, too, Aunt Olga,” I tell her.
“Where are we?” she asks.
“We’re at the place where you live now. We’re going to sit and have some coffee.” The weight of the carrier means there’s enough left for us to enjoy, despite the splatter staining both cups and cardboard.
Her posture rises at the news. “Thank God!”
(IF YOU ENJOYED THIS, PLEASE BUY THE BOOK ON AMAZON AS A BIRTHDAY GIFT TO MY AUNT.)
Happy birthday, old chum! We miss you, and you are in our hearts always.