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WAMC News Series: Keeping the holiday spirit alive through the pandemic

Michael Cashman (right) with his grandmother Joan Roach, or Noanie
Michael Cashman
Michael Cashman
Michael Cashman (right) with his grandmother Joan Roach, or Noanie

The COVID-19 pandemic separated families, friends and co-workers for nearly 18 months. Birthdays, graduations and holiday gatherings were missed or celebrated from a distance. This year, people are beginning to return to a somewhat pre-pandemic normal as vaccinations change how the virus spreads. As we begin WAMC’s weeklong series on holiday traditions, WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley looks at a special bond between two family members and a nursing home that tried to keep the holiday spirit alive despite enforced separation.

“I try to come here every day. She’s on the third floor. I use binoculars to see her on the third floor every day and it’s rough. Very rough.”

Americo Pivetta’s wife is being treated for dementia at the Meadowbrook Health Care, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation residential facility in Plattsburgh. In August 2020 he joined about 75 other people pushing for visitation restrictions to be eased so they could visit their loved ones.

“I think we should be able to touch our loved ones. I mean once every couple weeks we get the bottom floor but there’s a window between us. I mean, hold hands through the window? It’s a different life. For me it is 100 percent.”

For Meadowbrook Community Relations Coordinator Sandra Geddes, seeing families struggle was heart wrenching especially last holiday season.

“Christmas and Thanksgiving in 2020 was through the window and it was painful. It was really hard not only for our residents obviously, you know they struggle. There is a lot of residents that suffer from dementia. There’s a lot of residents that didn’t understand. Because you know many people didn’t understand what was happening with this pandemic," says Geddes. "Why can’t I see my loved ones? Why do I have to look at them through the window? So many residents can’t hear very well. So even on a phone through a window was really difficult. Can’t hold, can’t be touched, can’t be hugged by your loved ones. It was so painful to watch. It hurt. It just in terms of people, that people interaction. We didn’t have it. And that’s I guess another telling thing about the holiday spirit. It’s really about people coming together and so we missed that.”

Town of Plattsburgh Supervisor Michael Cashman came to the region as a college student from Carver, Massachusetts. He married and settled here. He has a close relationship with his family especially his grandmother Joan Roach who lives in South Glens Falls, New York, an hour and a half drive from his home.

“I was very blessed growing up that my mother’s parents lived with us in an in-law apartment in Massachusetts. And in growing up always were surrounded by my grandparents, my Poppa and my Noanie. And even in some of those years where we can’t be together on say Christmas Day a short time after we found time to spend together because Noanie and I share the same birthday.”

Because of that, Cashman says seeing his 80 year old grandmother, for whom he uses the Irish endearment Noanie, at this time of year is even more important than Christmas.

“Last year I had a milestone birthday. I turned 40. One of the things that I really looked forward to was being with my grandmother because of our close relationship. Noanie and I share the same birthday. It’s the day after Christmas. And we even go so far as having the tradition when we gift swap that we ensure that birthday gifts are not wrapped in Christmas paper. And you don’t give gifts like tube socks where the left foot is for Christmas and the right sock is for your birthday," laughs Cashman. "So we take our birthdays very seriously. But last year sadly we continued to do the social distance thing and we actually spent some time on basically video chat celebrating our birthday with one another.”

At Meadowbrook Health Care, Geddes saw staff try to make the holidays a bit brighter as Isolation wore on the residents.

“So many of our residents they have very close relationships with their loved ones and through a window just didn’t cut it. We did hundreds and hundreds of Facetimes, hundreds of Google meets, Google chats, whatever. The holidays last year were painful. We did everything we could to make it wonderful. We were inundated from our community with gifts. We tried everything we could to make it so special, and decorated just beautifully. So inside this building we did everything we could to make it a holiday. But it’s always so bittersweet because then they get wheeled down to the dining room to talk to their families through a window. So that what the holidays really looked like in 2020.”

Cashman also had to talk to his grandmother in 2020 virtually, something he says felt incredibly “flat.”

“It certainly took away an element of being together. But because of our close relationship just being able to see each other’s faces, you know we often will share stories of years past and updates. We speak pretty regularly. But just to be able to see each other face to face to me was really important. But it was also, to be staring at a screen, was a very direct reminder of though we are connected we were also very disconnected.”

Cashman calls his Noanie his inspiration and says they always made time to be together and make their birthdays special.

“In the holiday season there was a lot of travel that occurred. My parents are divorced. We would do something in such a way where my grandmother and I could spend our birthdays together. And there’s this one story that we talk about pretty regularly. One year Poppa, Noanie and I went to Florida and we stopped at a restaurant. And my Grandfather basically shares that it’s both of our birthdays. And it happened to be on our birthday. But they came out with these huge plates of brownies and ice cream. And I remember my grandfather saying on the way out and he goes ‘now Michael don’t think that we’re going to do this every night that we’re going to tell them it’s your birthday’ and my grandmother just laughed! Because I think I was like I don’t know six or something at the time. You know so that story often gets told on our birthday again," Cashman recalls. "And we also just try to find time just to carve out and we talk about my grandfather a lot. You know it really is just spending time with one another. And that probably is the best gift. You know she just means a lot. For someone that has a birthday near a prominent holiday it can often be very difficult because it kind of becomes the thing off to the side. And Noanie always made sure that her birthday and my birthday was something special. So as the holidays approach I know that while everybody gets to celebrate Christmas with their family I have something to look forward to. It’s our birthday. It’s something just very special between the two of us. And again because of COVID being apart we were doing it to protect each other."

"Emotionally though," asks Bradley, "how difficult was it?"

"Oh it was raw," says Cashman. "I mean it was raw. For me I was probably more emotional about not having that face-to-face time with her than I was turning 40. My grandmother, like I, are very social people and to have this break on our birthday really hit close to home.”

The people at Meadowbrook know the holidays won’t be completely normal this year, but Geddes is optimistic that it will be more like a traditional Christmas than last year.

“We decorate pretty crazy around these parts. Trees everywhere and we’re going to do a big spirit week. Staff and residents participate. Now we get to have people come in. Like we’re going to have music come in. We’re going to have a magician. We’re going to do all sorts of things because there’s less restrictions. And like I said a lot of residents have some level of dementia so Christmastime I think they feel this family or this brightness or warmth that we get," says Geddes. "And we’re a big home. We have, our census is like 212 right now and we have 350 staff. This is their home so we want it to be just as wonderful as it would be even if they were in their own home. You know and we keep it so nice and warm and cheery. And our families get to come in now which makes it even more so. So I’m actually excited for the holidays this year.”

Cashman, his wife and grandmother have all been vaccinated against COVID-19 and have visited each other in 2021. He hopes to continue their birthday tradition this year.

“I’ve seen her a couple of times now. In fact she and my mother came up and I gotta tell you that there are moments that I believe that will be imprinted on your memory forever. And I remember the hug that we had. That first big hug and it was like we just melted into each other. And I don’t know long it lasted but it was the warmest embrace that I can remember us ever having because it just felt like it had been forever. And we just both needed that. And it just really, really, really meant a lot. So much so that I can almost feel it as I’m talking about it right now.”

Stay tuned for more from our weeklong series on holiday traditions and how they’ve changed.