Sonder

Sonder n: The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passing in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

I don’t remember where I first heard this word–only that I found it really beautiful. For one thing, it makes me super curious about the people I see in the airports, and it generates empathy and humanism for them. Where are they going? Is it for business or fun? Is it spontaneous? Is the other place home or is Tucson home?

If Tucson is home for you, you may have seen the “Umbrella Lady” walking through town at some point or another, if not multiple times. If you’re not from Tucson, I wonder if you have a legend such as she was.

I felt compelled to write a little bit about her tonight, because she has sadly passed away from a tragic hit-and-run incident. I don’t quite know how else to process or explain why this affected me so deeply today. It was truly a chemical reaction. I saw the headline, I did a double-take, and then the tears came. I’ve never spoken to her in my life. I don’t know one true thing about her, except that her name was Lydia.

The first time I saw The Umbrella Lady was when I was in college. Around that time, I was really branching out and coming to appreciate my city, taking the bus around to explore its hidden gems and the things we tend to take for granted about our backyards. My mom had mentioned the lady at dinner one night, and I had no idea who she was talking about.

“You’d know her if you saw her,” my mom said. “She looks like she stepped out of a time machine, and she always carries an umbrella with her and has her hair done up in ringlets.”

“Huh,” I said.

Then Fourth Avenue became a popular hangout for me. I spent many a college night at a bar called O’Malley’s, including my “going away” hangout, commencement day, and a couple of birthdays. By day, it’s a fascinating street to simply wander. There are a couple of bookstores there, an ice cream shop, local foodie paradises that have been featured on the Food Network, and it has a distinct personality. My uncle and I used to have burgers with strange names at Bumstead’s (Michael Bolton Mullet, anyone?). As my friend said when the Spring Fourth Avenue Street Fair was one of the last events to cancel at the dawn of COVID, “It takes a LOT to scare Fourth Avenue.”

Go figure, that’s where I first saw the Umbrella Lady–inside of the Goodwill, sipping on a drink from the Chocolate Iguana. There was NO mistaking the woman from my mom’s description: ringlets, a big eccentric dress, and an umbrella!

“I see her all around town,” my mom said. “She’s always walking and she always has her umbrella with her.”

I saw her again a number of times before I left Tucson. With every passing occasion, I wanted to know why. Where was she going? Where was she coming from? Why did she choose to dress that way, and what was the story with the umbrellas? Wasn’t it too hot to be walking around all day?

For a while, I thought this was just a “thing” my mom and I talked about, but one day I found a Facebook page. Sure enough, it was called “Tucson Umbrella Lady,” and it was just a collection of posts from people all over Tucson who said, “I saw her today!” A lot of these posters had stories, and they were spinning a tall tale. People talked about how they stopped and talked to her, how they offered her a ride once, how they believed there were multiple umbrella ladies, how they weren’t even sure she was real, how she knew she had a “following” and thought it was interesting, and so on. She was a legend.

I remember telling my uncle about her once, and he was probably the one person I knew who didn’t understand who I was talking about.

“Sooo what? Did she talk to you, did she scare you, what happened?” he asked.

I just shrugged. “I dunno. It’s just a thing. That’s the story. I see her all the time and I wondered if you ever have, too!”

That was shortly before I moved to Virginia.

Coming back to Tucson after two years was somewhat difficult. Old restaurants had closed. Friends had moved away or changed. In some ways, I changed. I jumped headfirst into the full-time workforce. My tia grew ill. There’s a bitter note of truth to the adage about how “you can’t go home,” even if I’ve since reforged it into something new for me.

But I can’t even describe the joy I felt when a few years ago, I spotted The Umbrella Lady on one of her walks again. To be honest, I had forgotten about her for a while, and that sighting on Ina Road was everything. I told my mom almost immediately. It became a routine whenever I saw the woman, usually on either Oracle or Ina. “GUESS who I saw today?”

Three days ago, she was hit on one of her walks, and yesterday she succumbed to her injuries.

More stories pour in: Someone had her over for Thanksgiving dinner once, and she was quiet and sweet and happy. People talk about how they’ve seen her walking around for 25 years. A few more people talk about the rides they gave her on hot or rainy days, and what she chose to share about her past along the way. A picture begins to form, but it’s a little blurry. It’s a mosaic of all kinds of people chiming in with imperfect memory, so it feels almost like a game of Telephone. I believe what seems to be consistent, but I’m not sure it’s my place to air it here. What’s said tends to invoke a lot of grief and a tragedy in her life. I’m astounded at what it reveals about her resilience and heart.

I feel this because on some level, The Umbrella Lady was constant. Before and after my time in Virginia, she was always out and about taking her long walks. She always had her unique style, her umbrella, and a sort of mystery to her. All of this made her a sort of legend to the Tucson community.

I feel this because it’s tragic that she would be killed doing something we saw her doing every day–something that must’ve brought her peace, joy, or meaning.

I feel this because underneath the tall tale that she’s become, The Umbrella Lady was a human being with a full story and a whole life, as we all are. She was the embodiment of sonder, and her name was Lydia. May she rest in peace.

2 thoughts on “Sonder

  1. Beautiful article about the Umbrella Lady. I feel the exact same. It is amazing the imprint she has on the community. When I think of that episode of Speculative Sandbox on Modern Gods, I feel like she’s now become (and probably already was) that in my mind, a beautiful representation of Tucson’s eccentricities, resiliency and constancy while whimsically retro. I am also not too clear on her family/friend relations, but I feel like so much of Tucson became her friend over the years, and my heart goes out to everyone who grieves her loss

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    • That was beautifully said–“a beautiful representation of Tucson’s eccentricities, resiliency and constancy while whimsically retro.” I agree, totally a perfect example of our “modern gods.”

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