By Jessie Veeder
“You know, all we have is the moment. That’s all any of us have.”
This is what Diane Defoe said when people told her she shouldn’t do it. Her 95-year-old mother was too frail to take across the state to see her favorite singer in concert.
And besides, she wouldn’t remember anyway.
But that’s the end of the story.
The story begins, actually, with a woman who loves music. Ethelyn Basol, Diane’s mother, would sit down to watch “The Tony Orlando and Dawn Show” every Tuesday night in the mid 1970s.
“I remember it was Tuesday nights,” recalls Diane. “Because I would go to call her and then think ‘Well, I can’t call her right now. She’s watching Tony Orlando and she won’t pick up the phone.’”
Tony Orlando, who is best known for his hits “Knock Three Times” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” handsome and charismatic, was Ethelyn’s favorite singer.
Diane, Ethelyn’s only daughter, describes her mother, a woman who holds fond memories about being in the Harmonica Band in grade school, playing the saxophone in high school, the organ at the nursing home and who, when she moved into assisted living, in her 80s, started a band.
“She played the organ in a little band,” remembers Diane. “They would get together and have jam sessions at Hillside Court…they would tape a lot of it.”
Today Ethelyn’s organ sits in her room at the Good Shepherd Home in Watford City. Diane, who lives in town, visits her mother almost every day. She converted those tapes into CDs and when she visits, they’ll often play them and reminisce.
“She’ll say, ‘I haven’t been able to find new band members to play with here,’” says Diane. “And I’ll tell her, well, it probably wouldn’t be the same.”
And so the scene is set: an aging woman with a passion for music and a daughter who helps keep her memories afloat.
It’s a recipe that seemed to save Ethelyn’s life last spring when she fell ill with pneumonia, sending her to the hospital clinging to life, her family preparing for the end.
“I remember one night I was sitting with the nurse in mom’s room, trying to get her to eat and we were talking about our favorite singers,” recalled Diane. “I said to Lisa, the nurse, ‘Well you know who mom’s favorite singer is? It’s Tony Orlando!’ And that’s when things got started.”
Lisa looked up the singer on the Internet and printed off an 8×10 photo of Orlando and taped it to her hospital tray. Ethelyn’s eyes lit up.
“She’d point to it and say, ‘Isn’t he handsome?’” remembered Diane.
Diane went home and downloaded Orlando’s music to an iPod.
“There she was with her bright pink and blue headphones laying in her hospital bed, 80-some pounds, her little feet going to Tony Orlando,” says Diane.
After seeing Ethelyn’s reaction to the music and memories of her favorite singer, Lisa suggested to Diane that they reach out to Orlando in some way. So the nurse posted a message to Tony Orlando’s Facebook fan page about Ethelyn and Lisa got a reply from Jenny-Rose, Tony Orlando’s daughter.
“Lisa asked if she could have my phone number because Jenny-Rose was going to have her dad call me,” laughed Diane. “I was like, “Oh my God, Tony Orlando is going to call me?”
And he did indeed. Diane was at the hospital with her mother when her phone rang.
“He asked if he could talk to her, wondering if she would be able to hear him,” said Diane.
So she turned up the phone volume, put it up to her mother’s ear and Tony Orlando, Ethelyn’s favorite singer, sang “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” just for her.
A few days later a big box of Tony Orlando memorabilia arrived in Ethelyn’s hospital room, including all of his TV shows on DVD, twelve CDs of his music, ornaments, t-shirts and three 8×10 autographed photographs, one for Ethelyn, one for Diane, and one for Lisa.
“She was in heaven,” recalled Diane.
And the whole hospital got in on it, dancing to Tony Orlando’s music in the lab, singing to her, playing it for her, and admiring his photographs, until, little by little, Ethelyn got better.
And Jenny-Rose stayed in touch, sending texts to check in on Ethelyn and requesting photos that she could send along to her dad. That spring, Diane even worked with Jenny-Rose on flying Orlando into Minot on his way to a concert in Wisconsin that spring, but a bad storm prevented the trip from taking place.
“I really think he would have come her to see her if it wasn’t for the weather,” said Diane. “That’s the kind of man he is.”
If you ask Diane she will tell you she didn’t think her mother was going to recover that spring. The family gathered and plans were made.
“Oh, I know it’s God and medicine, but to give her something to look forward to, a reason to smile, I know that played a big part,” she said.
And so, in December, when her mother was back in the home, back to watching Tony Orlando DVDs and listening to CDs of her old band, Diane started checking to see if Orlando had any concerts in the area and discovered that he was going to be in Devils Lake.
Fifteen years ago Diane surprised her mother with a trip to see him in concert for the first time and remembers her tears of excitement. She wondered if she could pull it off again, but with her mother so fragile and suffering from disorientation and memory loss, she decided it would be too difficult.
“Then I went to visit one day…and she says, ‘Oh, I wish I wasn’t so old and I could see Tony Orlando one more time,” said Diane. “I looked at the nurse and she looked at me and I said ‘We’re going!’”
With the help of her daughter Penny and her husband, the tickets were purchased and plans were made.
“I texted Jenny, ‘We’re going to see your dad!’” said Diane. Jenny-Rose replied with a promise of free tickets and plans to meet Orlando back stage.
When the day came to take the trip, Diane decided to, again, surprise her mom.
“I picked her up from the nursing home and told her ‘We’re busting you out of this place,’” laughed Diane.
And so they did. And when they got to the concert at Spirit Lake Casino, they sat in the front row and watched Tony Orlando take the stage and Diane watched her 95-year-old mother’s mouth drop.
After the concert Jenny-Rose arranged for the family to be taken back stage and it was there that Ethelyn finally got to meet the man whose music had her tapping her toes for decades.
“He talked to her for a half hour. He hugged her. He told her she was beautiful,” said Daine. “He said, ‘We’re no longer fan and entertainer, we’re now friends.’ And then he gave her a kiss! It was unbelievable.”
Afterward, the group went into the casino and Diane put $20 in a slot machine for her mother and Ethelyn sealed that kiss by winning a sweet $460.
And that’s where this story ends, in the hotel room where a mother and a daughter, tucked into bed with the lights out, talked and reminisced into the early hours of the morning about an unbelievable and unforgettable night.
“I didn’t care if she remembered it tomorrow, if she was happy in the moment, it was worth it,” said Diane. “But she does. I was out at the home yesterday and it’s all she can talk about.”
Yes, this story ends here, but Ethelyn, with her daughter by her side, has more of her story to write.
Because when she turns 100, Tony Orlando promised to pay her a visit to help her celebrate.