Keeping grandparents, grandchildren connected during COVID-19

Bob Brody, Opinion contributor
Published 7:01 a.m. ET Dec. 17, 2020

COVID shutdowns kept me from my wife, daughter, and granddaughter in Italy. But show tunes and voice recordings gave us a connection.

This past July, for the first time in six months, I was going to visit Italy from New York City and see my granddaughter Lucia. There, she lives year-round with my wife, Elvira, and daughter, Caroline. But the pandemic forced Europe to close its borders to travelers from the U.S.

So we all made do. Caroline called me for video chats and I watched our distant little darling, now 2 years old, toddle around in nothing but her diaper and occasionally without it. I was fed a steady diet of photos of Lucia looking delicious and videos of her giddily chasing her grandmother from room to room. But I craved a stronger rapport.

So, from my apartment more than 4,000 miles away, I began to sing to Lucia. More accurately, I recorded videos of myself serenading her. Then I emailed the clips to Caroline. I’d never recorded videos of myself singing, nor of my doing anything else for that matter. I’ve never even taken a selfie. I had last sung in high school chorus more than 50 years ago.

But I felt an impulse to do something special. I would perform songs that best expressed my adoration for her and my hopeless optimism that we’ll all get through this pandemic OK. The videos, unlike live performance, would enable Caroline to play my tunes for Lucia at any time, possibly to watch again and again.

Building my repertoire

The first song I picked was “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” best remembered from the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” I printed out the lyrics for myself, tested how I looked on-camera and drank some green tea to limber up my vocal chords. I listened to the Judy Garland rendition to remind myself how the song should be sung and practiced imitating her, albeit to little avail.

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I followed with my versions of “Tomorrow” from “Annie” and the title song from “Cabaret.” As the pandemic deepened, with Italy strictly locked down, my contributions grew more frequent. I went on to do such classics as “You Make Me Feel So Young,” modeling myself after Frank Sinatra at his peak, along with “Blue Skies,” my cover of the Willie Nelson standard, and “Maria” — conveniently renamed “Lucia” — from “West Side Story.”

I sought to “sell” the songs, investing the lyrics with the emotions I felt, the yearning and the joy. I took a crack at a favorite, “Getting To Know You,” from “The King and I.” “Getting to know you/getting to know all about you,” I sang. “Getting to like you/getting to hope you like me.”

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Each time I dispatched a video I waited for the reviews to come in. Soon would come word from Caroline that Lucia either broke into a smile, delighted at my efforts, or just stared with amused curiosity, possibly wondering what’s the deal with this old guy from Queens trying to carry a show tune across the Atlantic Ocean.

Bob Brody and his granddaughter, Lucia Pace, in Guardia Sanframondi, Italy, in December, 2018. (Photo: Vito Pace)

Occasionally, I admit, my voice veered slightly off-key. Once, out of self-consciousness about my vocal prowess, I decided to forsake lyrics and go strictly instrumental. I delivered my take on the James Bond theme music. I impersonated the opening guitar riff, brought in the violins, then trumpeted away like a one-man brass section. All in all, it sounded like scatting, though I doubt it would remind anyone of Ella Fitzgerald.

We’d do anything — for connection

We have to do what we can during the pandemic to feel connected while apart. Clearly, the crisis has inspired people the world over to experiment with new activities that range from the mundane to the offbeat. Human beings most likely do this to keep ourselves from going flaming nuts. If we’re to get through this trauma with our mental health intact, we have to get creative and come up with rewarding new rituals.

So call my singing music therapy or a survival strategy. All I really want is for my singing to let Lucia know in no uncertain terms just how much her grandpa loves her.

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With Christmas coming, I recently increased my output. And, in the spirit of the season, I delivered my jolly rendition of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Just the other day I sang her the show tune “I’d Do Anything.” “I’ll do anything/for you dear anything/ for you mean everything to me,” I sang. “I know that/ I’ll go anywhere/for your smile anywhere/for your smile everywhere/ I’d see.”

Finished singing, I told Lucia a little story that I swear came to mind just at that moment. “Guess what, Lucia?” I said. “I first heard that song when I was 12 years old. My Nana took me to see a Broadway show in Times Square, New York City, a show named ‘Oliver.’ And it had that song in it. And I remembered that song all these years. And I realize now the reason I went to that show and heard that song was so I could sing it to you.”

Bob Brody, a consultant and essayist in New York City, is the author of the memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.” Follow him on Twitter: @BobLBrody

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