Between the two of them, they have 175 years experience in life. And if you spend a little time with sisters, Isabel (Mac Donnell) Toot, 89, and Margaret (Mac Donnell) Stokes, 86, you will learn a little something about a lot of things.
Even though they live hundreds of miles apart, the sisters enjoy spending as much time as they can together. Isabel lives in rural Nevada, in fairly close proximity to four of her sons, and Margaret lives in Newbury Port, Mass., about 40 miles north of Boston, the city where the girls were raised.
Both now widows, Isabel and Margaret say they love being together, because with their other three siblings now deceased, they realize that they are each other’s treasure. “We remember our childhood. We remember people, and when we’re gone or when one or the other of us is gone, there will be nobody to remember these things with,” Isabel said.
In Isabel’s living room, the two sit in comfortable chairs, one on each side of a coffee table, where they enjoy watching television — especially, at this time, the Olympics. They also enjoy sharing conversation about the news stories that they’re reading in the stack of newspapers and magazines that rest on the floor or on the coffee table by their chairs.
“We are both readers and get the newspapers and magazines. We talk about the articles and we discuss politics,” Isabel said. “We don’t always like [the politics], but we discuss it.”
Also sitting on the table are the two copies of “Little Wolves” by Thomas Maltman, a book that the sisters are reading as part of the Nevada Public Library’s book club. “It’s about Norse mythology, if I’m reading it right,” said Margaret. They nod in agreement.
This isn’t Margaret’s first trip to Iowa to visit her sister, but this winter she has stayed longer. Coming right after Christmas, she will be with Isabel until the end of March. The cold winter temperatures have made for many days of sitting together and visiting, often about the past, which includes mention of their Scottish roots. “We’re purebreds (Scottish),” Margaret said.
“There’s hardly any of us (purebreds) left,” Isabel adds.
Isabel takes some pictures out of an envelope that show the two on a trip in the northern part of Scotland three years ago. The two believe their ancestors immigrated to America from Scotland in the early 1800s, and settled in Nova Scotia, Canada, where the sisters were born.
When Isabel was 6 and Margaret was 3, their mother died, and the two came to Boston to live with their father’s sister. “That’s what people did in those years,” said Margaret. The two traveled on a train with two aunts to come to America. “That was the mode of transportation back in the 1930s,” they said.
Boston became their home, and a place where the two share many good memories.
“We grew up in a really good time, because you could go out and do things together,” said Isabel, who remembers how they had about half a dozen friends with whom they’d go ice skating, rollerskating, skiing, to the movies and more.
The two, and most of their friends, were Catholic, so that brings a laugh to Margaret and Isabel as they share memories of all of them visiting the museum in Boston. It was the night the young girls first saw the statue of David “in all his glory,” Margaret said. And that wasn’t the biggest “fret” of the night. They came out of the museum and all ate hot dogs. “It was Good Friday, and we didn’t think about it until we were about two-thirds done eating, so we swore each other to silence forever about eating a hot dog on Good Friday,” Margaret said.
They were raised in times of great freedom, as they see it. “We walked everywhere (in Boston) for miles. There was no such thing as your parents taking you any place,” Isabel said. “If you wanted to go, you walked.” And no one worried about how far they’d walk to go somewhere or that they’d run into any trouble. They didn’t worry about crazy people and stranger abductions in those days. “You’d never let kids go off together that much today,” Margaret said.
When they think back to an event in history that had the greatest impact on our society, their answer isn’t 911 or the development and growth of the Internet — things some of us might say today. Margaret’s answer is quick and certain. “I thought World War II was pretty shocking. People don’t realize it today, but men had disappeared in a certain age group. There were no men around.” Margaret was in high school at the time, and it was quite a change for her to see the men of her age and slightly older leaving.
“The best thing that came out of that war,” Isabel said, “was the fact that they had the GI Bill and people could go to college and become educated. So, if there was any gift from that war, that was it.” She said it took women a little longer to reap those educational benefits, but still, she and her sister were both able to get an education — Isabel attended a business school; Margaret went to an all-girls’ college.
Continuing along the lines of history, the two were asked about the most influential presidents, having lived through quite a few of them. “I think it’s a toss-up between Franklin Roosevelt and (Harry) Truman,” Margaret said. “Truman was so underestimated, but he certainly had a lot of courage and knew which way to go. I think history looks at him a lot differently than his peers did at the time. And I think Roosevelt just changed the country. I really do. All the big projects they put in… He really put electricity in the country.”
For Isabel, Teddy Roosevelt stands out. “He really gave us the momentum so that we have national parks today.” Her sister likes this choice too. “He believed in a strong America,” Margaret adds, “that if we were attacked we should be ready to fight and not roll over; speak softly and carry a big stick,” she said of the phrase Teddy Roosevelt coined.
Isabel said she likes to cherry-pick among the presidents, admitting she may not like everything about them, but she can often find something to appreciate. She uses Nixon and Johnson as examples, saying she liked how Nixon opened up relations with China; and liked what Johnson did with voting rights. Isabel also comments on one of the most controversial decisions of a president — Ford’s pardoning of Nixon. “At the time, I didn’t think it was right. But in hindsight, I think it was the right thing, because it was more healing for our country,” she said.
And being from Boston, of course John F. Kennedy holds a special place in the sisters’ hearts, but they feel he didn’t live long enough to create a legacy they can comment on.
But it’s all interesting — presidents, history — “We lived through it,” Isabel said. “When it’s happening, it’s not history. When it’s done, it’s history.”
And all this knowledge, from the experience of having lived through so much, keeps the sisters visiting and makes their visits interesting. Whether it’s stuff from the past or stuff from today, like how they were looking forward to the Olympics hockey match-up between Russia and the United States, the two find plenty to keep the cold days of winter filled up with new fodder.
“We’re lucky we’re still together,” Isabel said. “We enjoy each other’s company.”
About the sisters:
Isabel (Mac Donnell) Toot, 89
Lives in: Rural Nevada
Family: Joe, Gregg, David and Paul, all of Nevada; Mark, of northern Minnesota; and Mary (deceased); 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren
Margaret (Mac Donnell) Stokes, 86
Lives in: Newburyport, Mass.
Family: Five children; 11 grandchildren; six great-grandchildren