Mary Lam, 90, taught herself to play the ukulele; now she teaches others and together they serenade the residents of The Covington, an Episcopal Community Services senior living residence in Aliso Viejo.
“I never even had a lesson myself, but I wanted a group, so I taught each of them how to play,” said Lam, a retired schoolteacher who moved from Stockton to the Aliso Viejo facility in 2016.
Initially, daily during the pandemic, as many as ten “Mary Minstrels” happily strummed “You Are My Sunshine,” “Billy Boy” and other golden oldies on outdoor patios. Their goal: to lift the spirits of residents, who listened from balconies and “followed COVID rules,” according to Lam.
It was lots of fun, even with face masks and being appropriately socially distanced, said Barbara Peck, 85, a member of the group. “We’ve played for luaus and talent shows and summer concerts here at the Covington.” The group’s music-making even led to a jam session with Aliso Viejo’s mayor and a performance for the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
“We always try to pick songs appropriate for the occasion,” Peck added. “I just think it keeps us sharper. Mary is a wonderful leader. She keeps us improving with harder music and we’re learning all the time. We really enjoy it.”
For Valentine’s Day, the group is transitioning from instrumental concerts to musical theater, with group members showcasing their vocal abilities.
“This will be my first play,” said Lam, who admittedly never likes to sit still too long. “I like to do different things because I don’t like to be bored and I don’t want to feel like I’m being locked in.”
The play, a good-old fashioned love story, will feature ukulele renditions of “Around the World,” “When I Fall in Love,” “Only You” and “Hawaiian Wedding Song.” Residents will be invited to sing along, using printed lyric sheets.
The performance will also be emblematic of the current times, including what Lam calls a “COVID song.”
She rewrote the lyrics to “Where Have all the People Gone” to suit the occasion:
I wish that I could ably see
what the future holds for us.
Then my life will be planned
Without this great big fuss.
Life can really be a breeze.
We can live with idle ease.
Make COVID go away
So we can enjoy our day. Please.
The Rev. Rick Byrum, chaplain, said the performances have brightened spirits at a time when the pandemic has meant “everyone is dealing with loss, grief and isolation.”
The performances make everyone feel good, said Lam, a widow. “I think about all the songs we’re playing for Valentine’s. Such beautiful songs, and it makes me happy. Then I don’t have time to feel sad or sorry for myself. I just pick up the ukulele and start playing.
“We’re all there for the same purpose,” she said. “We want to play. We enjoy playing together. We enjoy making other people happy when we play.”
There will be two Valentine’s Day performances, added Lam. “And then, I’ll start to think about St. Patrick’s Day.”