There’s a sign in the UK for “Elderly Crossing.” The first time I saw it it cracked me up – two calcium deficient older folks trying to make their way across the road. The UK isn’t known for its abundance of vitamin D.
As I walked through the village of Bruntsfield, in Edinburgh, today I came upon the living inspiration for that sign. Two elderly women, hunched sisters, shuffle into a cross walk. Mary is 92. She is walking with the aid of two canes while a grocery bag hangs from her wrist. Her sister Josephine, 90, is grasping Mary’s arm for support while she pulls a heavy tote on wheels behind her.
They take no more than five or six tiny steps before the light turns red. I ask if I can help. “Can you stop traffic?” Mary asks. “There have been men in my life who believe I can,” I say. Then in my Diana Ross moment, I outstretch my arm to the oncoming cars.
Mary’s in charge. She tells me to give Josephine my other arm. “She’s a bossy boots, isn’t she Josephine?” “Ah, she is,” the kid sister confirms. I take Josephine and her groceries to the sidewalk before heading back for Mary and her canes. I ask them how much further they have to go. “Only a few blocks, up hill and around the bend,” Mary says. They’ll be in their mid-90‘s before they get home. They agree to let me help.
Mary & Josephine
As we stroll slowly, very, very, very slowly, up the hill, Josephine asks if I’m in town for a holiday. I tell her I’m a comic performing at The Stand, though my dad tells everyone I could have been a lawyer. She laughs. She tells me that she and Mary were born and bred in Edinburgh, but their mother came from Ireland. She can’t remember the exact county. It was a long time ago, you know. Of course, I say, who could remember such details. Mary can, that’s who. It was County Louth and her name was Catherine Reilly. Interesting, my great grandmother was also named Catherine Reilly from County Cavan.
We get to their flat, which reminds me of a dusty brownstone on the Upper West Side, leaves and flyers filling the hallway. Their apartment is in the basement down twelve small, steep, curved steps. I wonder how these curled women manage. “It’s bloody hell, that’s what it is,” Mary tells me. I suggest she go down on her butt, like we did as children, if it all becomes too much.
They follow behind me carefully, one twisted step at a time. I hesitatingly ask if they might need a few pennies for anything. “Oh no. We get our retirement money. We’re just fine.”
“I bet you ladies have a castle in the highlands that you’re keeping secret,” I tease. “Wouldn’t that be something,” they laugh. As I head back up the bent stairs, I tell them that the next time I’m in Edinburgh I’ll do a grocery run with them. I hope they’ll still be chugging along together. I don’t like to think of one without the other.