“THE NEW YORKER will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” H.W. Ross, Editor, prospectus for The New Yorker, 1925.
The white hair is carefully combed back to just below the ear, where it falls softly against her neck. A regal white. All the more dazzling when you realize her hair used to be hidden by the then-required habit of her religious order. Tucked away from a common sinner like myself. But not now. Not today, where it flows back from the breeze as the wheel chair scoots down the hall and into the communal dining room.
My 94-year-old aunt, Sister Marla, is having a rough spell. She lived a vibrant life helping people in hospitals in both Dubuque and Ames, but now she is back at her home in the convent in Dubuque. She’s been a nun for a gazillion years. A member of the Sisters of St. Francis. Their job, according to their website, is to follow a “vision of service and compassion to the most needy.”
“In our words and our actions we are challenged to treat all with respect and dignity, responding to the needs of our poor brothers and sisters, the destitute and the outcasts among us, finding a home among them.”
Hard to find the negative in that.
But here she is. Recovering from a fall to the floor. And her fellow Sisters are taking care of her now. So my 90-year-old mom and I head out on a car trip to see how she’s doing.
“Joe, watch out for the ice,” my mom advises, as we take off from the slick streets of Boone, Iowa. Even at 90, cautionary warnings are the meat and potatoes of any mother’s repertoire. Although, at 90, my mom has a bit of a devil-may-care attitude, which prompts a giggle rather than a scold as we slide on the slippery streets.
And the miles begin to drift behind us along with the ice and snow as we head east.
When I was much younger, I lived for a time with my grandfather who needed a little help. We whiled away our days talking of women, horse racing, and the price of corn. Surprisingly, my aunt, who lived nearby, decided I needed a piano. The rented piano was delivered one day into my grandfather’s tiny home that had no room for a piano. But there it sat, swallowing up the space. Then written music appeared. Elton John. Billy Joel. Popular music of the time. And I played. And I played. And I played. A small joy, courtesy of Sister Marla.
My mom and I make it to Dubuque, although I can’t seem to find the convent among the hills. “Get thee to a nunnery” is a harder command to follow than I thought. Ah, at last.
Several smiling women come to greet us and take us to see my aunt.
Many years ago, my aunt set me up on a date. She chose a lovely young woman who worked with her at the hospital. The woman was a dietitian and her speciality was white sauce. Since gravy is my primary food group, it seemed to be a fortuitous match. In preparation for this all-important date, my aunt signed herself up for dance classes and took me along. Disco dancing. It was the rage, and my aunt was determined I learn.
And we did. We mastered the Hustle, the Bus Stop, and the Bump. She was certainly the better partner as we twirled and twisted with her one hand raised high and her stylish light-blue pantsuit spinning around the room. Saturday Night Fever indeed. And although my gravy credentials weren’t enough to forge a relationship with the young woman, I did do the Bump with a nun. That has to count at the end of the day.
Today she smiles as she sits in a wheelchair pulled up to the table. We are invited to stay for dinner. We laugh about the vagaries of life. I talk of my family and my travels. She speaks of her health and her plans for the future. Dessert is brought.
As my mom sits by her side, my aunt leans over to brush my mom’s hair back off her face with a well-practiced swoosh.
An ordinary scene played out in many families and many cultures over many centuries. An older sister taking care of her younger sister. And at 94 and 90? Why should it be any different?
Okay, what’s going on here?
Listen, when H.W. Ross wrote that The New Yorker was not for the old lady in Dubuque, he was trying to carve out a niche in the magazine world for a sophisticated big-city magazine. Big fashion, big food, big people. Not for the little old lady in tiny Dubuque.
But in this time of a larger-than-life president with “big big plans,” “huge plans,” does the small gesture of kindness still have value? Do the acts of renting a piano, taking dancing lessons, and brushing hair from another’s face have any measure in this twitter age defined by capturing reality in 140 characters?
“In our words and our actions we are challenged to treat all with respect and dignity.”
Perhaps the little old lady in Dubuque is exactly the person to whom we should be looking these days. Edit her out? No, I don’t think so. Let’s edit her in.
Now, how do I get out of this nunnery?