Friday, April 2, 2021

 Reading aloud


“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.




Wednesday, February 10, 2021

 On Top of the World, Down Under


I didn’t even know I wanted to do this until I got there. But when I finally emerged after vertically climbing an enclosed ladder for the equivalent of five stories in a high-rise building, I burst into surprised tears. The physical journey was taxing, the emotional strain made my claustrophobic-self burn with tension and fear. I have no idea how long it took me to make that journey and I had no idea what to expect as I grabbed the first bar and took that first step. By the time I reached my goal, the wide-open sky at the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I was speechless and breathless. 


This adventure was on my friend Amy’s bucket list. She is a marathon runner, her husband Mark plays basketball incessantly and works out daily, I was weeks away from major surgery… I had no business taking this on. And yet, when invited to join their insanity, I looked up and thought, if I ever get back here again, I’ll be older and who knows what kind of shape? This might be my only chance, so I said OK.


Preparation for the climb was intense. We had an hour of education and safety procedures, then we dressed in blue jumpsuits, hair tied up, safety harnesses secured around our middles. It seems that the birds do not object to strange blue objects moving along the top periphery of the tallest steel arch bridge in the world (440 ft). The blue jumpsuits blend into the gray steel construction and the sky, so as not to disrupt plane traffic above and paparazzi below. Who thinks of these things? No hats, sunglasses, cameras – all could be whipped away, becoming deadly projectiles. After all of this, I couldn’t believe that no one in our group declined to continue. I wondered about my own choice to follow them up.


Clipped to each other and to a steel railing, our group got to the top and whooped in jubilation. Keepsake photos were taken ($25 each and worth every penny) and we just couldn’t believe the view – the iconic Sydney Opera House, designed to look like a ship, all kinds of boat traffic, antlike people moving in all directions, helicopters and birds below us. 


It was weirdly silent at the top, only the wind in our ears and a distant hum of traffic below. We could feel the slightest sway of the giant steel contraption as cars, trucks, buses and trains sped across the span. When the sun slid behind the clouds, gusty winds brought a bit of reality to where we stood. It was hard not to feel vulnerable, powerless to do anything but follow the person in front of you, encouraged by an enthusiastic guide. It was nerve-wracking going back down but adrenaline made the return that much easier and faster. Grateful to be back on terra firma, I couldn’t believe when I looked way up, that I had actually stood at the top of the world on the other side of the planet.



Thursday, January 21, 2021



I put on my pearls today. This is important because I haven’t worn them in more than a year. In fact, I haven’t worn anything fancy or pretty in that time. Pandemic fashion for me involves yoga pants and sweatshirts. I only put on earrings and a little tinted moisturizer for zoom calls. 


Today, I wore my pearls and even dug out some lipstick. I did this to honor a woman I don’t know personally, whose college I wouldn’t have gotten into, whose sorority is not something I would have any interest. And yet, my desire to honor her is huge. We share only one thing in common, our gender, and based on that, I feel tremendous joy and pride at her tremendous accomplishment: she is in the White House. She is not First Lady, she is not a cabinet member, she is not a special advisor, she is Number Two in our hopefully restored government and to me, this is a towering achievement for all women across the globe.


The pandemic has brought to rise so many things, social, cultural, political, so ugly and repulsive, that we simply can’t see in the mirror. And yet, changes are happening everywhere. Turn on the news and you’ll see more black reporters and anchors, look at the bestseller lists and you’ll find authors of color who weren’t there before. A seismic change is happening, despite the death and destruction. It’s easy to forget that Justice Sotomayor is a trailblazer herself, the third of only five women to have ever served on the Supreme Court. (The first was in 2006.) What a historic moment to see her smiling eyes welcoming the Top Girl in our country to a place where the air is rare, holding that Bible once owned by the first black justice so many years ago. 


Our new president is surrounding himself with diversity and all we can do is pray that it all works out the way he intends. I hope that this group will form a true team, not pandering to special interests, not just representing their own demographic, but working together to address, accomplish, achieve, aspire and inspire. 


This year, spending more time on the sofa than ever before, I felt helpless and sometimes hopeless as I watched events unfold across the country. I am fortunate to have everything I need as we shelter at home, waiting for the pandemic to end and for our country to regain an even footing on the world stage. I lost sleep over things I couldn’t control, had way too much time to consider the chaos, found it difficult to ponder the positive. I know I’m not alone in that feeling and also in the new one I feel today.


I finger the pearls at my throat and appreciate their texture. They are smooth and hold the warmth from my skin. They were born of irritation and physical toil that took a lot of time. My pearls have a slight purple hue, grey with a swirling of muted rainbow. I know pearls come in all sizes and colors, so beautiful and so unique. 


I’m delighted by the reason I put them on today – to celebrate a new day for our country and to honor our first female Vice President Kamala Harris, who wears hers every day. For her, pearls signify the founders of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority formed in 1908 at her alma mater Howard University. Howard is a traditionally black university that had five white women in its student body when it opened in 1867. By 1872, the university had educated more than 150,000 freed slaves of both genders, according to its website. Imagine that. 


Today, I feel hopeful. And I’m energized by my pearls and the reason I’m wearing them. It’s so nice to see a girl on the field and I know I join so many in wishing her success. I’m happy to hold up my arms to steady her as she stands on the shoulders of the pioneering women who have gone before. I’m even happier, to help her as she reaches down and out, to encourage and elevate the pioneering women who will follow her excellent example.




Copyright © 2021 Susan Irving Monshaw

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