Index of Posts: Slices of Shona's Life
Memories of Shona

From Randy Wray

SHONA and Me

We met in Rome in August 1986 at a gathering of all Fulbrighters to Italy; as we were the only two located in Bologna it was inevitable that we’d become acquaintances. She was the Italy enthusiast, and having already lived in the country a year she was well-connected and fluent. Other than a stint teaching elementary and high school in Mexico City, I’d never been anywhere. I had just struggled through a last-ditch effort at a year of Italian at Washington University (with Hyman Minsky sitting in the class—at least he made me look good by comparison!) after I found out that Jan Kregel had moved to Bo from the Netherlands. I’d been forced to watch Fellini films in college and knew second or third generation Italians in California and had no interest in spending a year there. So I was disappointed, and wanted to bail-out of the Fulbright—but Minsky told me I MUST GO! Minsky insisted that Italy is paradise and I reluctantly packed—prepared for the worst.

I was wrong, of course.

In any case, it was somewhat ironic that I immediately found a good living and working situation—sharing Paolo Bertossi’s apartment practically across the street from my office—while Shona struggled for weeks to locate something. She ended up living with a rather peculiar Jewish fan of Italian fascist memorabilia who had overstayed his visa by perhaps decades. Shona gradually became somewhat disenchanted with her studies in medieval philosophy and semiotics which seemed—so far as I could tell—to be concerned with divining what it means when the dog barks, or more importantly doesn’t bark, in 500 year old manuscripts (she didn’t study history until later). She’d complain that even the profs didn’t bother showing up to class. (But she did work with a close circle centered around Umberto Eco, who became life-long friends.)  

I tried, only partially successfully, to help Shona gain access to the library facilities I used—she’d get caught and kicked out, and sometimes was overwhelmed with the difficulty of her situation. I’d hold her hand, platonically, while she cried. To tell the truth, I had no particular interest in a young American woman—I was in Italy, after all, and Bo was full of the most beautiful women in the world. I had not come thousands of miles to find a girlfriend who grew up 80 miles from my house and went to college 25 miles from my high school. Besides, she had just graduated with a BA and I was finishing a PhD—so she was just too young.

While completely versed in all things Italian, Shona did still dance to her own drummer: skin tight peach pants with bright high tops; and in winter she wore a huge man’s overcoat, passed along from an infamous Bolognese fascist to her Jewish roommate. She occasionally worried about the contrast between her looks and the dressed-to-the-teeth Italian women everywhere, but could not bring herself to try to compete. I did my part to hold up American fashion, with shorts and sandals and—to distinguish myself from Germans--sans socks and with shampooed hair (our inside joke—the German tourists always looked like they needed a good bath). In those days, Bo was quite insular. I never went anywhere without all (horrified) eyes on me, and was known to all of her friends as the guy in short pants. I do take a lot of credit for the fact that Italian men today think nothing of donning shorts and tank tops even with no beach in sight. And eventually the Italian kids moved away from the silly “Topsider” deck shoes (translated into Italian they were simply called “tope-seeders”) to Shona’s hightops.

We’d meet, mainly, to see American movies in English; occasionally I’d bring her home and cook dinner and to talk movies, music, and baseball. Most of those who knew her, and me, will be surprised at that since she was the culinary expert in our family. I’d make vegetarian pasta and savory, vegetarian, pies. Once I used the sugared crust by mistake—we tried it but it was just too strange even to eat for politeness’s sake. Sometime around mid-year she convinced me to try Italian red wine. I had never had anything but Boonesfarm, or on a splurge, Gallo Hearty Burgundy, the purpose of which was the alcohol, not the flavor. I was happy with the cheap but good northern Italian whites. But she got me hooked on Chianti. Shortly thereafter I had my first espresso (I had tasted a cappuccino at the Fulbright orientation in August—my first sip of coffee ever—and hated it)--black, strong, and no sugar. I was hooked.

She ate like a horse and drank like a fish and I was suitably impressed—told her I’d never met a woman like that. We became closer over the spring. Nearing the end of my stay, we kissed for the first time in April. I was hooked on that, too.

One day sometime later I got a call from Roberta, Shona’s closest friend, to say she was in the hospital and while it was very serious she would recover. It was the first of many times her Italian friends had to help out. They took me to the hospital—where she had been checked in under an assumed Italian name to avoid charges. She had an advanced kidney infection, weak and with tubes in her arms. I was scared, and implicated in her predicament. Over the next couple of weeks I rode my bicycle to see her at least once a day, probably twice—a long way out of the center—to sit with her through the changing of the IVs, which she hated. She was in a big open room with a bunch of elderly ladies, mostly batty but quite enamored with the Americans. She knew all of them and on each visit she’d fill me in on their stories; I would bring the American newspapers to teach her how to read the baseball stats. She pretended to be interested. While always thin, she got even skinnier, but slowly recovered. She convinced the skeptical nurses that she needed me in the shower with her to ensure she did not fall.

Roberta told Shona that I must be serious about her.

So that is when we fell in love and we knew we’d never part. When I left early in the summer to take a job in Denver, I asked her to follow me at the end of summer—after her job selling wine in Tuscany ended. I can easily picture her (in her 1950’s style flowery loose dress) along with Maggi waving goodbye as I boarded the airport bus in Milan. She came to Denver early. At the end of that year, she turned down better offers in order to pursue her PhD at Boulder—and we moved there to be close to her classes. She actually also attended mine at Denver for the first year. We were together nearly 24 hours a day—sat side-by-side in our “study” (the second bedroom in our apartment), happily working 12 or 16 hours a day. And she traveled with me to most of my conferences. That is why most of my economist colleagues know her—and understandably like her much better than they like me. Until the kids started school, they also came along. Before age 6 they clocked more mileage and more boring conference dinner talks than any kids ought to put up with.

Recently she told me that our first decade together was far beyond anything she could have imagined about marriage. That was (largely) before the kids and the dual careers and all the other stuff that inevitably comes along. But we were still forever. I know her friends and family could never understand—two seemingly very different people locked in a strange union of opposites. Heck, even my own friends could not understand what she saw in me. At our wedding John Henry pointedly asked her. Her answer: “Honesty.” His response: “Jeez, that stuff works?”

She always said of our first meeting in Rome that her first impression was “that one is going to be a hard nut to crack”. She cracked the nut. I used to joke with her that she was my entertainment center—the only enjoyment I needed. Actually, it was not a joke. She was the only diversion I ever wanted.

In our spare time we’d go camping in the Rockies as much as possible. We got a cat, Heather, and took him camping, too. He’d endure long hikes in a shoulder bag and we’d try to train him to walk around the campground on a leash—but he had a deathly fear of strangers. Later we bought a small camping trailer, fully self-contained so that Shona could cook great dinners while I worked at the table. We’d stay until we ran out of water and electricity. He lived to see his 21st birthday. Shona loved that cat. She was trying to postpone the inevitable by pumping water down his throat (he drank running water like a camel); I told her he was gone and tried to comfort her.

But Shona was a people person, both in her life and in her research, a true social scientist. She was fascinated by social networks. One of her biggest joys was to find the name of someone mentioned in a will that she had seen months or even years before in another will. Then she’d spend days trying to map the connection. She studied families of professors and of course she was the daughter of a professor, while mothering the family of professors so the poignancy was not lost on her. In life, too, she was a networker, as evidenced by the outpouring of condolences sent from everywhere in recent days. Many have mentioned her laugh and it is true that everyone will remember that. Her voice was fairly high-pitched, but she had a deep one, too, that was used for jokes especially of the risqué variety. From her dad she inherited story-telling and a ribald sense of humor.

Alina inherited detailed story-telling from her mom. Alina has long regaled us, summarizing every twist of the plot of movies she’s never seen—after viewing the trailer she can fill in the rest. I suspect her plots are better than the real thing. Once when Alina was about 8 and we were driving to Albany to pick up Shona from some trip she decided to see if she could talk nonstop for the entire 90 minute drive—alternating among a Texan cowboy drawl, a Brooklyn accent, and an Indian accent. Hilarious, and she made it with breath to spare. We had many family dinners—well, most of them in fact—during which Shona and Alina provided every word spoken, with Shane and me just observing in amusement.

He and I had a very lonely and quiet year since last August without our women.

Shona could make up clever limericks on the spot. Almost never for the ears of children. She liked to be the center of attention in the company of friends. And she always was.

I can remember her first conference presentation, which she worked over for days. She wanted to practice it before me. I’d never seen her give any kind of presentation, although she might have done so as a GTA. Historians tend to read their presentations—economists think that is bad form. But Shona was good at it—interesting, with enthusiasm and with asides to maintain attention. Years later she gave me a powerpoint presentation. Again, very good and this time punctuated with some of the hundreds or thousands of pictures she accumulated over the years. Like her dad, she would have become a great after-dinner speaker.

While strong and game for anything—from successfully integrating the boy’s water polo team at Berkeley high (although she admitted to me that she wasn’t much good—the boys simply did not know how to deal with this crazy skinny girl who was all over them), to helping me work on cars (we, twice, pulled off the front of my Datsun pickup’s engine to replace the timing chain; and some might not know that she took auto mechanics in high school), to sanding our hardwood floors (first removing asbestos flooring with a slamscraper), and on to hanging out our third floor windows to paint trim and dormers 55 feet above ground—she actually had a somewhat fragile constitution. She’d lose a day or two on many trips we took, where she could barely get out of bed. On a vacation to Sardegna with a whole gaggle of Italian friends she came down yet again with something. The Italians were positive she’d simply had too much sun—those Americans just cannot handle sun or wine, you know—but I insisted she needed a doctor because I thought she had the flu. So they drove us to the hospital. The doc took one look at her and gave his prognosis: “Influenza”. Our friends were suitably surprised. But, yet again, they had come to the rescue.

My two strongest memories: First, on countless explorations of Italian cities, I’d be following her watching her ponytail bouncing from side-to-side as she read a guide book and headed to the next destination with me struggling to keep up (even while reading she could walk faster than me). I’d then get yet another lecture on the umpteenth church’s dimly lit frescoes. Later, I’d protest that I’d seen all the churches I will ever need to see for the rest of my life, so would sit upon the steps while she went inside. In truth, I’d sit on church steps in Italy any day so long as I did not have to see yet another poorly drawn Madonna and child.

Second, in our backyard in Denver, Shona dancing to loud music while improbably huge and 2 weeks past due. I have it on video. Shane refused to come out. We’d walk miles every day in Wash Park and do all the other things the doctor thought might dislodge him. Nothing worked. Shona absolutely loved being pregnant—read all the books, ate all the healthy food, and we took all the classes. It was going to be all natural, no drugs, no pain relief. At 3 weeks past due the Doc said no more waiting—he insisted on intervention to get that puppy out of there. We sadly prepared, and then late in the night just hours before the scheduled induced birth, she got contractions. We were thrilled, and rushed to the hospital. They said it was not enough and began the induction procedures—and the hours of pushing began. He finally came out against his will (which as we soon discovered has remained with him intact) screaming and spitting fury.

He was perfectly formed and looked ready to start running round the room—the advantage of baking in the oven a few extra weeks. No lizardly-looking newborn unable to lift its head, he was punching at the nurses with accuracy. For some reason the docs were sure that given his late arrival there had to be something wrong with him, hence, he and I went off for blood testing while he screamed bloody murder. I was sure all he wanted was to nurse but they would not listen to me. After an interminable wait, we got the tests, all of which were fine, and he finally got back to mom. When both went to sleep I went out to my old pick-up parked on the street. Someone had broken the side mirror. I sat in the truck and cried—a mixture of exhaustion and joy.

Shane nursed every 2 hours on the 24 hour clock for the next 15 months, then stopped abruptly. He was the best-looking baby ever. That is not solely my judgment—at 2 months we moved to Italy and absolutely every Italian we tried to pass on the street stopped to tell us so. No one, ever, heard him cry. When we boarded that plane with his little baby things, bound for a 7 month stay back in Bo, we looked at each other and wondered what on earth we were doing. We knew nothing about raising a baby, and here we were heading off with an infant an ocean away from family and pediatricians. Shona was going back to work in the archives (research for her dissertation), and she’d pump and I’d feed and we’d make it up as we went along. Hah! Our income was too low to buy Shane many toys, and we lived in Paolo’s converted chicken coop. We hung a few posters on the walls of the tiny room and I’d carry Shane letting him look at one, then the next, and then out the lone window—over and over and over again. But, again, our Italian friends came to our rescue—lending things we needed, helping to locate doctors, and so on. The little old ladies on the bus would insist on giving me their seats so he could sit in my lap. We’d go to early dinners, and once the food was prepared the cook would come out and take Shane off to entertain him while we ate in peace. In truth, there is no better place to take a baby.

Alina was different. Again, Shona loved the pregnancy even with Shane demanding attention. More-or-less on schedule Shona went into labor and we went to the hospital—much more relaxed this time around. At some point she said she needed to go to the bathroom, the nurse checked her and announced: no, you don’t need the bathroom, that baby is coming out RIGHT NOW! And thus ensued the classic hospital scene, with Shona on the gurney piloted by speeding orderlies and me running to try to keep up. Alina came out like grass through the goose, as they say. She was very red and absolutely still and silent. Shona and I looked at each other in shock and I asked the docs “what is wrong with her”. They said “Nothing, she’s a healthy and content baby.” They laid her on Shona and she was, indeed, content.

That lasted about 2 months. She then became the Exorcist Baby, with the spinning head, green soup projectile vomiting and 4 hours of screaming every night beginning at the stroke of midnight. I, literally, could not take it—no more than 10 minutes at a time. Shona smiled the whole time and proclaimed Alina beautiful. It took me a while to see that beauty, but of course Shona was right. My memory is that Alina slept with us for the next 4 years, refusing to wean and engaging in deep philosophical arguments with Shona about the benefits for both mother and daughter of extended nursing well beyond the toddler years. She finally succumbed to forced weaning at about the time she lost her baby teeth. Shona always insisted I exaggerate. But Alina never slept in her crib, so went from our bed to bunkbeds in her brother’s room. I’d sit with her for hours while she flip-flopped in bed. She was always the last to fall asleep in our house—I’d finally wake sitting next to her bed on the floor. Unlike Shane—who so far as I know never had any fear of “monsters”—Alina needed the protection of her big brother to fend off the childhood fears. I think that even this year she still occasionally slipped down the stairs to sleep with her mom. But we will not tell anyone.

I was always Shona’s main audience. I found it somewhat disconcerting that even after a quarter of a century together, when we were in a group and she was talking, she’d be looking at me waiting for my reaction. I protested that she took me too seriously. But really she was very easy to please. All she wanted was my attention and a kind word now and then. I wish I had pleased her more often with those kind words, and I wish we had skyped more this past year. I missed her but with the time difference the best time for her was bad for me. All of us had looked forward to next year, when we could be back together. She and I were planning a trip to Argentina for the fall, leaving the kids behind. It would have been our first extended trip without them, save for a short one to the Rockies a few years ago. While this was a great year for her—the research, the archives, Florence, her old friends, and the colleagues at Villa Etati—I was looking forward to July when it would end and we’d have her back home.

Note to our kids: I don’t need to tell you that your mom loved you, fought for you, was always on your side. You know all that. I wanted to apologize that you will not get to grow older with her. I was lucky—I was in my fifties when my grandma and my mom died. I got to experience the changing relationship especially with my mom, from parent to friend, from one who took care of me to one that relied on me to make decisions for her. From my twenties my mom was mostly my friend. She used to come to all of our wild parties and befriended my friends, too. Long after I left California she still would meet up with my friends. There is no doubt your mom was like that, too. She would have made an easy transition from your mom to your best friend. And to become a friend of all your friends. There is no one, anywhere, who did not like your mom.

She mothered all of us. You know I cannot replace her—the shoes are too big to fill. I’m truly sorry. We are all going to have to grow up quickly. You will need to make good choices. I have had too many losses. I cannot take any more. Your grandparents and your aunt have had too big a loss. It is a tremendous burden on you but you must take our feelings into account. Risk-taking is normal teenager behavior and it serves an evolutionary purpose. But we don’t give a damn about evolution. You must live and prosper and be happy. Big risks are out of the question now.

Your mom taught you most of what you will need to know and has left you with a plethora of friends that you can turn to when you need help. Stay in contact with them, visit them, and call upon them. Our family has become significantly smaller but you’ve got help whenever you need it.

Apologies to Auden:

She was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I knew that love would last forever; I was not wrong.

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Reader Comments (3)

Dear Randy -

I never met Shona. I was a student of Jim Kelly's - both as an undergraduate and graduate student and he served on my PhD committee from which I graduated UCB in 1982. He and I have been very good and close friends ever since.

I loved reading your story about you and your immediate family's life with Shona. I cried during it and when I reached the end. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story with us - the tears are still flowing. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to know her and you through what you wrote. I regret that it never was in person - and more than anything I regret that she is no longer with everyone in body - but she certainly will remain forever in spirit.

I hope that someday soon I will have the joy and honor of meeting you and your children. Although you don't know me, know that when Jim informed me of your loss I was devastated. I wish more than anything that I can take away your, your children's, Jim's and Celia's pain. All that I can do is let you know that my heart aches with you, and that my hope is that as you have written, you will always reflect on what you had in body and will always have in spirit - something that multitudes of people never have.

Love from a new true friend,

May 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Hernried

Dear Randy,

Thank you so much for this very open message about Shona, about your love for her and for your family. I was thinking of Shona today and came to the site just to read about her and be with her friends. I was just missing her. And this post was so wonderful to read. I've cried and laughed. And cried some more. I loved reading about your romance, which Shona told me about when we drove to Kalamazoo one year. Her face lit up with such a glow as she described meeting you on the Fulbright. It was lovely to see--and to know how much she adored you. Thank you too for sharing the birth of your children. You know Shona loved her children more than anything--and was so fiercely proud and protective of them. My heart goes out to all of you.

May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGinny Blanton

Dear Randy,

What a beautiful homage to your life with Shona. I feel like a bit of a voyeur with such an intimate, well versed recounting of your meeting, marriage and partnership. Thank you for sharing your story. We, who loved Shona, have all suffered a terrible loss, but none as great as you and the kids.

We are thinking of you.

With love,
Leslye, Griff, Ashlye and Chloe

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeslye Alexander

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