Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Yolanda J. Ortega 1948-2022


The first casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic for me was losing touch with my oldest friend, Yolanda. She had a birthday in early March, and I had plans to drive down to Aledo to meet her, share some old memories, and have a snack of some sort. Early March of 2020 was when the news of Covid-19 and the emerging pandemic emergency got serious. I agonized for days and days over whether to cancel my trip. There was too much at risk for her and for my husband and me. I canceled my visit. It would be well over a year before I saw her again. The decision still haunts me.


Yolanda and I met when we were both twenty-somethings working for the University of Iowa. I was a clerk third-class filling in time while trying to decide if I’d go back for my B.A. degree or not. She was two years older, a Knox grad, an art major who was hired as a graphic artist. Her cubby-hole office was barely visible from my workstation in East Hall. The attraction was immediate, I just had to find out how a real artist operated. So yes, I was a pest who became a friend over the time we worked in the same department.  


I was there when she, as a single woman, bought a cute little bungalow not all that far from my grandmother’s house. I helped at her housewarming party when she made French onion soup for the whole neighborhood as well as for friends, family, and co-workers. She had a fantastic memory and a wide range of interests. We shared discussions about science, printmaking, and her trips to England to visit her pen pals over cups of black Oolong tea sweetened with honey. I was there when she adopted her first cat. Or perhaps the cat, pregnant as it turned out, sensed an easy mark, and adopted her.


She stayed in Iowa City while I moved away first, to marry and have children, but came back to visit as often as I could. She taught me the invaluable lesson that friendships never really have to end. That time and distance apart didn’t matter; we could always pick up right where we left off.


Years later she would move to Bishop Hill and enticed my move there by encouraging my dreams of living the artist’s life. We both invested time and money in properties from Bishop Hill’s colony past. Unfortunately, her house, a rural colony-era structure in dire need of saving, was in much worse condition than my post-colony one. Her grand plans for restoration and repurposing the house all too soon outstripped her resources and her health. The last few years of decline brought her to a rehab facility in rural Illinois.


She died on the morning of Halloween one year ago. I didn’t find out about it until a mailed greeting card was returned to me. I can’t help but speculate that she, with her fine-tuned sense of anglophile humour, would have found a way to make her passing funny, interesting, or even a little prophetic. I felt her sparse obituary left out the essence of her spirit. It failed to flesh out a life that was lived the way she wanted. A life filled with books, art, poetry, genealogy, and a whole lot of rescued cats, neutered for the most part, and one rescued dog. On this one-year anniversary I stop to ponder the void that was left behind. And raise a cuppa tea in her honour.

1 comment:

  1. I started writing this in 2021 with the thought it might be my entry for an anthology the MWC Press was organizing. I ran out of steam and had no ending so I switched to another story that eventually made it into the published book: These Interesting Times, Surviving 2020 in the Quad Cities. Edited by Misty Urban. This is as finished as I can get for now.