This story is part of WHYY’s series “COVID-19: Remembering lives we’ve lost” about the everyday people the Philadelphia region has lost to the coronavirus pandemic, the lives they lived, and what they meant to their families, friends and communities.
When she was just three years old, Ida Robinson moved from rural Virginia to Philadelphia, where for the next 81 years she grew up, married, raised children, grieved and ultimately passed away from COVID-19 in April.
But a part of her was always in Virginia, where she was born and where her extended family remained. Those southern roots were best expressed through her cooking.
“My mother had a hummingbird cake with black walnuts,” said Joann Robinson, Ida’s daughter. “She would travel to her hometown in Martinsville, Virginia to get these black walnuts, then bring them back and make these cakes for the holidays.”
Family, friends, neighbors and fellow Baptist congregants at the churches Ida attended would count on the cakes and pies coming out of her kitchen on the holidays, along with enormous breakfasts with sausage, bacon and fried apples.
“She always opened her doors to family and church,” said Joann. “Every meal mother would cook: Christmas, Easter, New Year’s, Thanksgiving. Huge meals.”
Ida was a leap year baby, born Ida Rebecca Hairston on February 29, 1936, and moved to Philadelphia when her father got a job here as a minister. She married Johnny Lee Robinson in 1956 and had six children.
Johnny died in 1997. One of their daughters, Kim, died in 2015.
For more than 40 years, Ida worked for the city in various departments. When she retired in the 1990s, she was working security at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a job Joann says was her favorite.
“She met celebrities, she met Michael Jackson,” said Joann. “She was a fun-loving mother and I miss her dearly.”
Later in life Ida suffered a heart attack and stroke that left her partially paralyzed. She was living in the AristaCare at Ivy Hill, an assisted living facility in Cedarbrook, when she contracted the novel coronavirus.
Joann said she was not told her mother had the COVID-19 virus until Ida was moved to Chestnut Hill Hospital, and was not allowed to visit her until Ida was put into an induced coma.
Ida died on April 26, two weeks before Mother’s Day. Joann had not seen her for almost two months. Ida is buried with her husband at White Chapel Memorial Park in Feasterville.
A ‘beautiful’ remembrance
Although she could not be with Ida as she died, Joann is able to remember her mother in a unique way.
A few days after Ida passed away, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts sent out a call for mothers whose stories would be written as songs. Ida’s granddaughter, Diamond Franklin sent a letter proposing that her mother, Joann, would make for a good song.
Diamond, a recent graduate of Cairn University where she studied singing, did not know that the composer of the song would be her former teacher, Ruth Naomi Floyd, the director of jazz studies at Cairn and currently an artist-in-residence at the Kimmel Center. The resulting song is “Beautiful Love.”
“I love the title, ‘Beautiful Love,’” said Diamond. “My nickname for my mother is Love: ‘Good morning, Love.’ It perfectly described my mother.
“The lyrics say, ‘I see you standing there, strength and beauty are your name. You walk the valley of faith and loss with dignity,’” said Diamond, who said her grandmother was ill when she was a young child. “Talking about how my mother has held herself during the time of losing her mother.”
The song was written from the perspective of a daughter, Diamond, looking at her mother, Joann, who in turn is looking up the matriarchal chain at her own mother, Ida.
“I really desired Joann’s mother to be part of that,” said Ruth Naomi Floyd. “It’s the cycle of life. I recently lost my father: there’s that tension of relinquishing a precious relationship, and yet still having love to give. The love between Joann and her mother, and then between Diamond and her sisters, is a beautiful love.”
“Beautiful Love” was created at a breakneck pace so it could be posted as a YouTube video by Mother’s Day. It was written, arranged, recorded and released in 48 hours.
“I was really touched. I cried a little,” said Joann.
Something else Joanne and her mother shared was their faith. Ida could often be found singing in church choirs and often quoted the gospel, even writing Bible verses in birthday cards.
Joann said even though she was not allowed to be with her mother during her final days, she takes comfort in religion — and now, in the special song just for them.
“My mother was always a very strong spiritual mother — always,” Joann said. “I share that song with my mother. I share it with her in spirit.”