“Oh oh oh I can just see that,” her laugher came through the phone. She sighed and chuckled. “We’ll need to work on your accent a bit love.” I could hear her smiling.
“I feel like I’m mocking you,” I told my 92-year old Irish auntie. “I’m just gonna stick with my regular reading voice if it’s all the same to you.”
“OK love,” she said, sipping what I knew to be hot tea with lemon from her favorite, chipped Belleek cup and saucer given to her by her mother more than a half century ago.
We promised Uncle Sonny that we would take care of Mary. Such an easy promise to make but more than a little difficult to keep. Not long after he passed away, we relocated to London. Mary doesn’t do email, has an ancient flip phone mobile and the internet is something other people use. So, we’re left with land lines and snail mail. I love writing letters and sending funny cards and I don’t mind a long, friendly chat on the phone. But the pandemic took away her social connections, especially Saturday evening Mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart, thus making my weekly touchpoints important, essential in an outsized way. I couldn’t help but worry about her.
Mary and her 90-year old sister are the last remaining members of her generation of a family of six boys and two girls with sprawling offspring all over the globe. Mary never had children of her own, but keeps up with dozens of nieces and nephews and greats and never forgets a birthday card, to Australia, Ireland, Finland or the US. She and Uncle Sonny, a confirmed bachelor his entire 93 years, lived in the same apartment building, she on the 6th floor, he on the 9th. They became a surreptitious couple when her husband died 30 years ago. Unk never let on that she was more than a good friend from the building until close to the end.
What an adorable couple they were. He served in World War II and saw too much. He never wanted to get on an airplane again, so Mary made her annual pilgrimage home to Ireland each summer alone. The last time she went, we were put in charge of making sure Unk got what he needed and were admonished to check on him every day as she had done. At that time, we lived about an hour away, so I phoned and he always shooed me off. “I’m fine, just fine,” he would say, and I knew he was watching baseball on TV and didn’t need me hovering.
When Unk gave up his car, I started taking them on their weekly grocery trips. I didn’t mind the drive and it gave me a chance to lay eyes on them frequently. They had their own shopping lists and they picked up special things for each other too – she kept ice cream in her freezer for him when he would come to her place each evening to watch TV. He kept tiny coffee cakes for her breakfast that she went up in the elevator each morning to enjoy with him. He made the best scrambled eggs and sludge-like coffee in an ancient percolator. They shared his magnificent view of the Hudson River and New York City beyond. We would go out for lunch, I would schlep their bags to their respective apartments and make it back to Connecticut before the bus brought my darlings back from school.
As the pandemic dragged on, I found it harder to talk with Mary on the phone about anything other than her isolation and more recently, her inability to get a vaccine. It’s a tough balance to keep: wanting to just do things for our elders and honoring their very strong desire to do it all themselves. A wonderful opportunity arrived in the mail in the guise of a gift from a dear friend who loves books the way I do. In her note, she said this particular book, The Mammy set in Dublin, made her laugh out loud. Perfect antidote to pandemic blahs.
I told Mary about the book in our next conversation and asked a few questions about the city of her birth, that I’ve never visited. One thing led to another and I found myself offering to read it to her over the phone. She loved the idea and so we began. What a treasure trove of memories this opened for her. I could hear her voice lighten and brighten. The only time I was grateful for the inability to see her was the chapter when the main character Agnes and her best buddy Marion are discussing orgasms. Mary is a straight shooter but I think even she might have been blushing. We’re not finished with the book yet, but I’m enjoying this and will look for something suitable to follow this one. She is so strong and capable and I love to “visit” Ireland with her over the phone.