The Sunday Edition

She's 67. Her new best friend is 97

How reading aloud to a visually-impaired woman made Mary Munson a better and stronger person.
Mary Munson's essay 'Marguerite' describes how reading aloud to a visually-impaired woman made her a better and stronger person.

By Mary Munson

Last year I made a new best friend. I don't suppose that's an unusual event. But here's what makes it different. I am 67 and she is 97. We are late bloomers.

One day, having lunch with another friend, I brought up my frustration with volunteering. I could never figure out exactly what it was I wanted to do. Over the years, I had helped to make evening meals in a women's hostel, worked in a senior's home, sorted out cans in a food bank. But I couldn't make a real commitment. Nothing would stick. And that didn't make me feel very good about myself. Now, in retirement, I wanted to try again.

Over lunch, I blurted out that I'd love to read to blind people. Both my Mom and Dad were blind when they died. Both had macular degeneration.   

I went into a bookstore after lunch, and there was the poster. The CNIB was looking for Vision Mates. Volunteers who could assist people with opening mail and reading. If I was looking for a sign, this was it. Some things are just so obvious.

I got in touch with the CNIB, filled out forms, did a workshop online and finally a criminal check. I passed. I was gung-ho, determined to make this volunteer experience work this time.

And this is how I came to meet Marguerite. She lives in a nursing home on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, in the old coal mining town of Glace Bay. Driving into the parking lot for the first time, I was stunned by the beauty of the location. Right on the water. The ocean and the light change by the minute.

I find Marguerite's room in the new wing. She is well-dressed, sitting perfectly straight in a chair. She is smiling. I almost said to her "But I know you," because in that first minute I felt I had known her for years. That didn't make any sense.

She gives me hope about many things. She has lived 97 years and still looks forward to whatever each new day brings.

We had never met before. It had to be that United Church connection. I'm a very lapsed member, but my Dad served as a United Church minister for over 50 years. My Mother was the quintessential minister's wife, working very hard for the church and never earning a penny. As I look around Marguerite's room, I see the church bulletin from Knox United and I understand. Of course, I know Marguerite.

First off, I learn she has macular degeneration. She can see some, but her reading days are gone. I know from my own family experience that this is a frustrating and depressing time. But we share a laugh when I suggest reading the obituaries first. Bingo.

One day as I'm reading the death notices, Marguerite tells me she nursed with one of the women written up in the paper. They worked together in the Point Edward Sanatorium. Wow. When is the last time any of us heard that word?

It's a word from another time when people with tuberculosis were put away. Patients could rest and infection could be contained. At the time of Confederation, TB was the leading cause of death in this country. Marguerite nursed through a pivotal period, when the treatment changed from rest to antibiotics. To this day, she can remember the names of the life-saving drugs. She had an interesting life.

She still does.

In our reading friendship, we've discarded a few books as being dull. Of one book, she said  "Well, that's not a book that's going to keep us on the edge of our seats, is it Mary?" And she is right. Now we're reading a book from the 50s called "Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris." People of a certain age will remember the book. A movie was made out of it too. It's a laugh but it's not an easy read — it's very wordy, not like contemporary writing. But I give it my all, despite my very bad Cockney accent. Marguerite says she can imagine the scenes as I read.

Once when I told her I was going away for a woman's weekend, she eyed me, pun intended, and said "Mary, Mary, you behave yourself, don't party too much." I just chuckle (and leave her with a smile upon my face.)

The gumdrop cake that Mary made for Marguerite, using her mother's recipe.
And isn't that something my Mother would have said to me. She died about 7 years ago. I miss her very much but somehow my friendship with Marguerite makes me feel closer to her — helps me remember her better. One of the treats my Mother used to bake is a gumdrop cake. When I told Marguerite I was making one (using my Mom's recipe, of course), she exclaimed, "I love that and I haven't had it in years". Well, Marguerite I am happy to oblige.

Just lately, it's been confirmed that, I too, have macular degeneration. I know Marguerite's grace and dignity will guide me as I travel down this road. She gives me hope about many things. She has lived 97 years and still looks forward to whatever each new day brings. It may sound trite, but I actually think being with Marguerite makes me a better and stronger person.

I happily anticipate our Tuesdays together. I can't see her on Mondays because, you see, that's the day she goes bowling.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.