My Mom Has No Friends

The loneliness of growing older made bearable with playdates.

The author’s mother Veronica (far right) with friends in 1993. Photo: Courtesy of the author
The author’s mother Veronica (far right) with friends in 1993. Photo: Courtesy of the author
The author’s mother Veronica (far right) with friends in 1993. Photo: Courtesy of the author

My mom Veronica is 80. She used to be popular. In one of my earliest memories, she sits at a kitchen table in Queens, spilling her mug of instant coffee as she cackles with her best friend. When we later moved to New Jersey, her work pals from the local real-estate agency popped by in the afternoon to gossip and listen to Billy Joel. “I’m movin’ out!” Veronica would sing, with a fist pump. In 1990, my parents divorced and Mom, at the age of 48, found a whole new set of salty middle-age singles who borrowed her Anne Klein leather miniskirt for dates with divorced men.

Before COVID-19 and before her second husband fell off a ladder and died in September 2020, she was known for hosting spontaneous dinner parties in her Florida community for a dozen couples. “Hey, if you have enough booze and play Steely Dan, no one cares about the food,” Veronica would say. But her vast network of couple friends withered as the pandemic spread: Older folks isolated, people who lost a partner moved closer to their adult kids. Being a widow, she told me once, was a social liability: “They don’t know what to do with you at dinner parties.” In the span of about six months, her circle of about 20 friends and acquaintances had shrunk to two widowed women. One of them was battling cancer and didn’t feel comfortable socializing during the pandemic.

Last September, Veronica moved here to the Los Angeles area to be near me and my family. She started out in a one-bedroom apartment at a nice independent-living facility in Pasadena. (She insisted on bringing most of her entertaining arsenal — four chafing dishes, two punch bowls, cake stands, St. Patrick’s Day decorations, and stemware for 40 — which is all still in a huge storage unit, along with that leather miniskirt.) But alas, “I’m too much of a hippie for that kind of structured living,” my mom told me. She lasted three months. “Nobody in L.A. speaks their mind,” added my mom, who grew up “too poor to buy a magazine” in Red Hook and could only go on one lousy ride at Coney Island for every childhood birthday. “Oh, and please don’t tell me to ‘chill out.’ I’ll chill out when I’m fucking dead.” Apparently, nobody wanted to listen to Blondie with her in the activity room either.

Mom then bought a condo around the corner from me, my husband, and our 11-year-old daughter Tess a few months later. (Thankfully, she and her last partner lived lean and amassed decent savings.) Like some 20 million American seniors, she lives alone. She and I haven’t lived within thousands of miles of each other in over 25 years. Now, I can walk to her door in four minutes. While we talk every day, shop for groceries together on Tuesdays, and meet every week for Sunday supper, I know she longs for a few old broads. Women like her who wear big jewelry and flirt with busboys. Women who order a second martini at dinner and say, “If I slide out of this booth, pick me up in the morning because I’m sleeping here.” Women who unapologetically groan when they sit down and when they get up. Women who know they might have just a few good years left — and intend to make the most of every single minute.

The discomfort of loneliness eases with time. You come to accept solitude like a cracked tile in a corner of the bathroom floor. Eventually, you just stop noticing the defect. For older people, however, one crack could easily, quietly, lead to more. Social isolation, for people over 50, is correlated with a 50 percent increased risk of dementia, according to the CDC, and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke. Loneliness is also associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Prolonged isolation is a health risk on the level of smoking. (And older members of marginalized communities are at an even higher risk for all of the above when they’re socially secluded.) In the years since my mom lost her husband and her friends in Florida, her health declined and her shine dimmed. The woman who owns more makeup than Dolly Parton — including Stila compacts from the early aughts she audaciously calls “my vintage cosmetics” — stopped putting on her face.

I can’t imagine life without the dozens of women I have collected throughout my adulthood. When I struggled to get pregnant in my early 40s, they circled around me like a herd of female elephants. When my older brother died suddenly a few years ago, friends dropped off dinners (and wine) on my doorstep almost every night for a couple of weeks. But really, I mostly rely on these ladies for day-to-day support when I feel insecure or ugly or just cheated by humanity. Women in my circle know when I text, Can you talk?, it’s code for I am losing it and need a friend right now. 

The author and her mother in 2006. Photo: Courtesy of the author

I learned to prioritize women from Veronica too. She valued her friendships and worked at them. As a kid, I saw her differently when she leaned into a huddle of housewives to tell a funny story about shredding her bra in the washing machine. She wore her chic Norma Kamali catsuit to meet the girls. When one of my mom’s friends suspected that her husband was having an affair, Veronica disguised herself in a wig, fake teeth, and oversize glasses to trail him to a local bar. (“Oh, he was cheating,” she told me and my younger sister Noreen the next morning.) In a way, I felt betrayed because she had this secret identity outside of being my mom or my dad’s wife. Plus, she definitely looked much happier around her friends than she was with us. Now, I get it. Without friends, how do we vent about the unconditional neediness of our romantic partners and our offspring? Or assert our identities? (My dad hated the Kamali.)

Finally, I decided it was time for me to do for my mom what she once did for me: arrange some playdates. You read a lot about grown kids shuttling their elder kin to medical appointments and fetching their prescriptions. (More than half of all Americans in their 40s and a third in their 50s toggle between taking care of an older parent while minding their own kids. That’s why we’re known as the “sandwich generation.”) You don’t hear so much about finding them companions who like to eat dinner at 4 p.m. and compete over who has the worst herniated disk. (Understandably, sandwich-generation folks are more stressed and pressed for time — I coordinate my tween daughter’s social calendar too.)

My mom did make one friend, all on her own, at her condo complex in April. A woman with a car, no less. They made plans for dinner at a local Thai restaurant; I acted like she had a date with Al Pacino. (“What are you wearing?” “Don’t order curry because it makes you hiccup.”) On the big night, I literally hid behind a tree to spy on them as they shared chicken satay alfresco. Were they leaning in to conspire like Grace and Frankie? Not exactly. Was my mom charming the waiter with her Norma Desmond impression? Nope. I knew from just that one glance it wasn’t a connection. They met one or two more times for dinner but weren’t desperate enough to hang again. “She’s didactic,” my mom murmured when I asked how the evening went.

Sociologists say it takes an average of 50 hours to make a casual friend and about 200 hours to form a close bond with someone. Using that metric, and undeterred by the previous failed friend date, I figured my mom could make two casual friends a month and bank her surplus hours to upgrade informal pals to platinum status. But where could an 80-year-old woman reach hundreds of her peers who lived within a ten-mile radius? Social media wouldn’t work: She was banned from Facebook years ago for repeatedly lying about her age.

The idea to pimp out my mom on Nextdoor came to me one morning about a month ago as I scrolled past a screed about pet owners who don’t pick up after their dogs. The engagement was angry and immediate. These people were passionate and had a lot of time on their hands. An hour later, I posted a cute picture of Veronica with this introduction:

Photo: Courtesy of the author

My Mom Has No Friends. (But it’s not her fault.) Veronica, who’s a total smoke show at 80, moved here to Hancock Park less than a year ago during the peak of the pandemic. She’s hilarious and loves Steely Dan, museums, jewelry making, coconut cake, big accessories, hip restaurants, dancing the hustle and “strong, like bull” cosmopolitans. Oh and she’s originally from Brooklyn, so she has opinions — lots of opinions. Does she like long walks on the beach? Probably not. But trust me, this widow is fun and loyal and curious and will make you laugh over lunch. If you’re a woman interested in meeting up with Veronica or getting a group of “ladies with experience” together, please post below. (I am happy to organize. I love my mom and you will too.)

Thankfully, my Nextdoor gambit paid off. By noon, 37 people clamored to befriend Veronica in the comments. That evening, over 150 jockeyed for a playdate. The responses ranged from “Born in the Bronx. Count me in.” to “I would love meeting senior ladies who are still alive …” to “Does she need a gay best friend?” Only one creeper asked, “Does she like to party?” My mom simply said, “If that means some Doobie Brothers and a glass of red wine, absolutely.” The replies kept rolling in: Millennials offered to take Veronica to a Dodgers game. A middle-age woman confessed that her own mother didn’t talk to her anymore. When I showed Veronica the Nextdoor post, which now had over 1,000 likes, she smiled and shrugged: “It only took me 80 fucking years to get discovered in Hollywood.”

It’s taken me 50 fucking years to realize that I want to be friends with my mom, too. Because that’s her best self, the version of Veronica who laughs until she loses her balance and who shouts at a party, “Hey, let’s dance before we’re dead.” Plus, I want to borrow that damn miniskirt for a date with my husband.

Watching my mom navigate a new city alone, at 80, has rejiggered my perspective of her. Growing up, I saw her as dependent on my dad and sometimes embarrassing. Today, I see her as brave, hysterical, supportive, stylish — the same qualities I seek out in a new friend. We unfairly expect our mothers to remain as we imagined them as kids. Now, both of us older and myself a mother, I can see how incomplete my definition of her was — and how much more of her there is to enjoy. Maybe these final years with my mom are an opportunity for me to wriggle out of my role as daughter and be more friend than family?

Veronica now has three new pals who responded to the post and met up with her for outdoor jazz at a local museum a couple of weeks ago. (My daughter made a “My Mom Has No Friends” sign with gold glitter so they could all find each other.)  Already, I see an uptick in my mom’s energy and attitude. She brags about her upcoming dates. “I’m taking JoAnn to the Cheesecake Factory for lunch. I already told her the bang-bang chicken is spicy,” she told me yesterday. (My mom owns a copy of the 21-page menu.)

She has yet to respond to all 275 comments on Nextdoor, but she’s reaching out to a few new women every day. I just hope Veronica still has time for me.

My Mom Has No Friends