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Memories of Monica

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FC: Memories of Monica | From Her Friends at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln

3: To the Parents and Family of Monica Rentfrow, Monica graced our university for just two years. But in those two years, she touched so many of us. Graduate students come and go. They are here for two years, four years, sometimes longer. They receive their degrees and move on. Their professors remember them, their friends. Sometimes, though, there comes a student whose bright light reaches to everyone in the department. Monica was such a bright light. Students who were not in classes with her knew her. Professors who were not her teachers still knew her! Her smile, her sunny demeanor, her readiness to enter into conversation or help someone in the hallway was so cherished here in Andrews Hall--the home of the English Department. Most of all, there was such a knowing intelligence about her. I just knew that Monica was going to continue on and do amazing work. Perhaps this is why her death has shocked so many of us. What I'd like to tell all of you is that Monica left us a gift here at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She left us a gift that comes from all of you. A person who touches so many people does not become that person alone. She is also part of who you are because she learned kindness, generosity, love, and created light—that you all obviously have. She reflects those who raised her, who were close to her. Thank you for giving us Monica. Despite the brief moment, the brief privilege of having her here, she made did amazing work (her poetry is powerful) and she encouraged us simply by who she was, to be the best we can be. Thank you. I will forever hold her dear. I send you my deepest condolences. Most sincerely, Amelia --Amelia Montes Professor

4: I entered my MA program in 2009 as a quiet mouse, jumping in fear at everything that seemed different compared to the much smaller school I had just graduated from with my BA a few months before. I was fortunate to know a couple people in the program, Tyler Anderson and Katie Sisneros, and one day before classes began they offered to show me around and get something to eat. I met Monica that day because she and Katie shared an office. When you meet certain people, it is obvious that they are exceptional. Monica was one of those people. As we walked to the Student Union (she rode her red scooter), she cracked jokes, she asked questions, she answered questions before I even had a chance to ask. I think Monica could read people better than most people I've met. She not only helped to make me feel that despite all my misgivings and fears, I might actually be in the right place at the right time in my life, but also that it was indeed silly to feel so intimidated by so many nice people. The one class I took with Monica was Nonfiction/memoir writing with Joy Castro. I loved this class because of the people that were in it, the stories they shared, and the environment these lovely personalities created when mixed all together. So many stories last in my memory from that class, but for some reason, it is a simple gesture I remember very vividly. After writing on the chalkboard, Joy had a small line of white chalk on her cheek. Monica let her know with a gesture of wiping her own hand across her own face, and Joy laughed and said, "Do I have chalk on my face? You're so sweet." For some reason, maybe because I felt intimidated by all the talent around me every time I stepped into that building, I saw that single gesture as true courage. Monica wasn't afraid to draw attention to herself in order to help someone else. I think of that moment a lot in my life, which is strange, I know, but for a shy gal like me, it is the perfect example of being brave in a world that is judgmental and sometimes wicked, but, as Monica showed me, altogether nothing to be afraid of. --Rachel Hruza M.A. 2011

5: Monica and I started our Master's programs at the same time and had English 990 together. But I rarely ventured out with classmates or other students. I was too intimidated by all the smart and talented people in the program. Eventually, I psyched myself up enough to go to a "No Name" reading at Sur Tango. I sat at a table by myself. Immediately, Monica and Jennie Case said hello from a neighboring table. We exchanged a few words and Monica finally said, "So, are you gonna sit with us or what?" We all laughed and I joined them, feeling an enormous sense of relief. I knew I would fit in just fine after that. While I was recalling this memory a few days after hearing about Monica's passing, and listening to the radio, I heard a few lines of a song that reminded me of that moment: "God put a million, million doors in the world for his love to walk through. One of those doors is you." For me - and many others - one of those doors was Monica. --Charise Alexander Adams M.A. 2010

6: I worked with Monica in a class on poetic form and also served as a Reader on her M.A. Thesis Committee. When I think of Monica, I’ll always remember her as “a trooper” – a young woman who had not always had it easy in life, but was determined to live it on her terms anyway. She had a great sense of humor, yet insisted that people take her seriously. Monica had stories to tell, and worked hard on the poems in which she attempted to tell those stories. The title of her thesis was Rethinking Repair, which I thought was perfect for that collection of poems in which she wrote in a very forthright way about how being a dwarf had affected her life, but not, she insisted, defined her life. That distinction was important to her, crucial to the way she wanted the world to view her and others with her condition – or any other condition we might call a “disability.” After she left Lincoln, I would hear from Monica from time to time via email or Facebook. She had her struggles – with health issues, with finding a fulfilling job – but, being the trooper she was, she gamely soldiered on. The last email I received was a totally upbeat missive that said things were coming together. And so, her sudden and unexpected death seems that much sadder. Monica may have been little in stature, but she made a big impression on the people whose lives she touched. She will be missed. --Grace Bauer Professor

7: A haiku from Monica that I like: I don't have enough fingers to count all the good people on one hand. I don't have a specific memory. I loved seeing her around Andrews! But here's this: It cheered me to see Monica, to know her. It's so cliché to say I've never saw her angry but really, I never saw an angry Monica. I hardly ever saw a single Monica--she was a cutie and seem to always have a beau. And her sense of humor was quick enough that she'd make me laugh in a minute. I want to mention, too, that I appreciated her poetry. I read her Masters Thesis twice and enjoyed it more the second time. She was good people; I'll always count her. --DeMisty Bellinger PhD 2012

8: It was surprising to me when I realized that I had only been in Monica’s physical vicinity for a year and a handful of months. When my partner, Daniel, and I first came to UNL in Fall 2009, Monica and Jennie Case were immediately warm and welcoming. They became two of my closest friends here, people I could confide in, commiserate with, share stories about our lives before coming to graduate school. That was something about Monica that I loved, that we didn’t just talk about school. She wasn’t a “school friend,” someone with whom I spent time with because of proximity; she was a real friend. After Monica graduated and moved back to Michigan, we kept in contact through Facebook. I thought of her often, and posted quick loving messages to her Facebook wall saying how much we missed her, but as often happens in graduate school, I didn’t correspond as much as I would have liked. At the beginning of this winter, Daniel and I were surprised to find a package from Monica in the mail. In the package were two knit caps, one with black and red interwoven designs and one UNL hat with red and white stripes and the “N” logo on it. The letter began by updating us on the goings on in her life and asking about our lives. At the end of the letter she referenced the hats and how she was thinking of us and even if we already had too many warm hats for winter, she wanted us to have something physical to remind us of how much she missed us and our times together at UNL. She wrote that even though we didn’t get to talk as much as we would like, she felt our special connection, a shared fundamental bond. That package made my week and I wrote back. I talked about getting together soon. We even talked about meeting up a conference this year in February. Unlike other people who I worried about seeing after so much time had passed, I was only excited. I knew we were the kind of friends who when we finally got to see each other again in person would fall seamlessly back into step as if no time had passed. That package and those hats are evidence of the kind of thoughtful and generous person Monica was. It gives me some comfort to know that even though we didn’t get to meet up again in person, Monica felt with us that reciprocal connection. There aren’t many opportunities in this world to find the people we connect to so naturally, so profoundly, and I feel infinitely blessed I got to have that with Monica. -- Sarah A. Chavez Current PhD Candidate

9: Monica was my research assistant when she first came to UNL, and I will always be grateful for her help and fresh perspectives on two of my books; the acknowledgments of Hell or High Water and Family Trouble both express thanks for her hard work. But more importantly, I will always remember our thoughtful talks about teaching and poetry, and I will always cherish Monica's kindness, humor, beauty, generosity of spirit, and wonderful laugh. To know her was a gift. --Joy Castro Professor

10: Monica and I shared a hallway in Andrews Hall at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln during our tenure as Masters students. Her office and mine faced each other, making communication between us easy and almost forcing an inevitable camaraderie that would have developed naturally on its own, albeit a bit slower. We were inevitable friends; Mo was an incurable goof, which comforted my sense of unease at being a goof myself, but feeling like the august environment of graduate school in the humanities meant such instincts should be quelled. Graduate school, I learned, need not be so serious. And Mo helped teach me that. She quickly became my rock, that soul I could turn to when school became such an enormous burden that I just needed to tether myself to another person to consider the very real fear that the stress, workload, and uncertainty were all just part of an elaborate practical joke. I shared meals at Mo’s apartment in Lincoln, even meeting her mother and sister. Hours of work, and movies, and giggling, and temporary tattoos, and dog cuddles, and friendship were shared in that small temporary home she’d carved out for herself in Nebraska, all the while feeling the tug of Michigan in her heart. We talked often of that, and my mother even got the pleasure of meeting Mo when she offered her transportation back from the airport in Omaha after returning from a visit home. “She was such an unbelievably pleasant person,” my mom said, when I called to tell her of Mo’s passing. “I only really spent a few hours with her, but she always stuck in my mind.” As a woman with a weird last name, Sisneros, I got used to people finding unique variations on it and dubbing them nicknames. But Mo’s take on “Sisneros” was by far my favorite. She quickly took to pronouncing it “Sisnoceros” (rhymes with rhinoceros), and she liked it so much she even made up a hand signal to accompany it – every time she called me Sisnoceros, she threw a hooked finger up on her nose like a rhino horn. I started doing it too, and soon it became a sort of makeshift greeting between the two of us, shared during those frequent passes between each other’s offices. Passed, too, were countless cartoons, notes of friendship, borrowed books, and yells of frustration. It was like we orbited each other, the gravity of one supporting the stability of the other, without which we might both just drift off into space.

11: My favorite memory of Monica and I’s friendship is the story I’ve probably told more than any other. I think it exemplified her spirit, and how easy it was to be drawn into it. It was the last day of classes before the holiday break in 2009. Mo needed to take a chair down to the classroom in which she would be teaching the following semester, and it needed to be tethered to the desk so it remained where she needed it. We had the chair, we had the bicycle lock we’d use to keep it where it belonged, and I was going to help her transport it down the elevator and to her classroom. She suggested, instead, that we try a little game instead. Mo hopped on her scooter, I planted my butt in her chair, and we each grabbed one end of the bike lock. She took off at full scooter speed down the wide empty hall on the 2nd floor of Andrews, yanking me seconds later after her. She swung an arm forward, launching me forward away from her, and let go. I flew down the hall, screaming the whole way, and hit a wall hard. I couldn’t stop laughing. The secretarial staff stuck their heads out the office door to see what all the ruckus was about. A few professors of religion emerged from their mysterious nook at the end of the hall, also curious who’d be making such a scene on this day of reprieve from the usual building full of undergraduates. We played crack the whip a couple more times, to a smattering of applause from our spectators. It was stupid, and it was absolutely us. In hindsight it is my favorite story to tell not just because it’s objectively hilarious, but also because it typifies Mo’s absolute refusal to approach life without first arming herself with a healthy dose of absurdity. Because life simply hasn’t yet proven that it deserves to be taken seriously. Years from now, I have no doubt that one of my sorest regrets will be that I let Monica and I’s communication fall by the wayside after we parted ways, she returning to her beloved Michigan and I starting a PhD program in Minneapolis. We always assume there will be time; an assumption that, perhaps more than any other, has a tendency to call your bluff and surprise you in tragic ways. I am happy to count Monica among the most positive influences I’ve had in my life. She inspired me to be a better friend, a better writer, and a better woman. Memory is a fickle thing, but Monica was tenacious enough to have no doubt etched herself permanently in mine. --Katie Sisneros M.A. 2010

12: I wanted to share one of my memories of Monica while she was here at UNL. My favorite one is the day that I stepped in the hall and heard the sound of Monica’s electric scooter coming down the hall and hysterical laughing. What I saw was Monica shooting down the hall at a good clip with fellow student, Katie Sisneros, hanging on to the front of the scooter for dear life laughing out loud. After I got done laughing at them I was required to remind them that they were probably breaking every safety rule in the book. Monica, in her usual manner, gave me a cheeky grin and revved the scooter up again and then took off down the hall. This world was certainly a better place with Monica in it. She was a special person in every way and will be sorely missed. --Sue Hart Graduate Secretary

13: Whenever I was in Andrews during the years Monica was studying at UNL, I liked to see her scooter parked outside one of the doors, as if to let the rest of us know she was on the job, doing what she was supposed to be doing, fulfilling our expectations. In that way she seemed to make of herself more of a steady presence than most of the rest of us either were or had the energy to be. The poems she showed me during our tutorial sessions were whimsical and full of life. They had a sense of play and delight about them that flew in the face of the deadly seriousness that so many young poets think they are obliged to affect. And that these poems originated in a person with severe disabilities made them even more uplifting. She reminded me very much of the late Josephine Miles, a poet who taught at the University of California-Berkeley, and who suffered from such severe rheumatoid arthritis that she hired a strapping graduate student to carry her in his arms from class to class. Yet in none of Jo Miles’ marvelous poems is there any trace of self-pity nor a single mention of her illness. Nor was there any of that in Monica’s poems. She was making the best of what she’d been given. I liked to have her stop by my office just to say hello. We had some good talks and she did her half of the laughing. It was an honor to have her friendship and I will remember her always. --Ted Kooser Professor

14: My favorite memory of Monica was the time she won the chocolate game at my birthday party. How did she win? She won by eating a chocolate bar with a knife and fork. This sounds relatively easy, but before anyone playing could start cutting bites of chocolate, they first had to correctly roll a certain number on a die and then put on a hat, lei, glasses, and a pair of mittens before anyone else rolled that number again. Everyone had fun playing, but everyone always had a good time when Monica was around. Without exception. --Dave Nall Lincoln friend

15: Dear Mr. and Mrs. Massar and Monica’s brother, sisters, and in-laws, To say there are no words to express the sorrow over losing Monica is in this case the exact truth. There are no words for that, but I hope you will accept my profound sympathies and my deepest thanks for the gift of having known and been close to your daughter. I was especially lucky to go to school with Monica for two years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Though there is a wide difference in our ages, we connected immediately and I never thought of her as “my young friend Monica.” I think you already know that people didn’t think about Monica that way: she was just herself, Monica. One of the reasons that we did connect so immediately is because I also have a disability that makes day-to-day life pretty difficult. Mine is one of what they call “an invisible disability,” but it was never so to Monica. She (as always) was right there, checking in, generous, funny, happy, smart, and no-nonsense. It was a real comfort. Whether watching episodes of “Friends,” which we both loved, getting a bowl of soup at Panera, or staying up late for another beer and another joke, those two years were also marked by a deep kindness that I will never forget. I don’t know that I gave her much in return for what I got, but I expect you hear that a lot right now. I send my deepest sympathies to you all for this terribly unfair loss, and thank you again so much for the gift of your daughter. She touched so many lives so deeply, and I think right now we are all wondering what we can do to be more like her. With sincerest condolences, --Adrian Koesters, or as Mo liked to call me, “A” PhD 2012

16: I met Monica during my first semester at UNL in Fall 2008 when we took a course together from Dr. Maureen Honey on female writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I remember several times during our course when Monica made the entire class laugh and I quickly grew to love her sense of humor and wit. I was also impressed by Monica's ability to bridge worlds during our course conversations. The majority of the fiction and poetry we studied was written by women who were fighting to assert their power, presence, intellect, and talent during an extremely tenuous era where society continued to position African Americans--and female African Americans as "others"--denigrated, objectified, and dismissed. Monica's insights truly impacted our learning experiences as she expanded the discussion to an analysis of the way societies continue to categorized and demean what they choose not to understand. Monica’s class presentation and final research project paired the themes from our course reading material with her own analysis of the ways little people have been objectified. Her words were profound, powerful, and deeply moving. Through the rest of our time together at UNL, my relationship with Monica was mostly limited to conversations as we passed one another in the hallway on our way to our offices, a class, or to go teach. Monica was consistently upbeat, caring, and always funny—it was impossible to not smile when speaking with her and hearing her crack jokes. It was after Monica left UNL that we actually deepened our friendship and began exchanging emails. I will always remember how even when she was going through a very difficult time in her life, she was caring and genuinely concerned in how I was doing. Since her passing I’ve reread our emails and I’m reminded of her humor, gratitude, and positivity amidst trial. Though I didn’t know her for a very long period of time, I think it speaks greatly of her character that she so strongly impacted not only my own life but countless others during her time here at UNL. She will be greatly missed but her example, poetry, writing, and humor will live on. --Jackie Harris Current PhD candidate

17: Bob Vivian, Monica’s mentor, took a class with me a long time ago, so when Monica came, she was my “grandstudent,” and I didn’t feel shy asking her to help me with the writers at Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York. Monica and another grad student came out to York with me. We had a lunch in the Chinese restaurant and then went over to the prison. Luckily the authorities were true to their word and let Monica’s scooter in. The women in our “Words from Within” writing group need the inspirations of women who have overcome hardships. Watching Monica roll in and then seeing her hop off and talk to them about poetry—read her own and listen to and comment on theirs—was an inspiration for all our writers. Women DO overcome hardships and live fully despite handicaps, something women buried in a lifetime of abuse and addiction have trouble seeing. Monica gave them the present of herself. And so, months later, when the chapbook of prison writing was done and we had our book launch in the prison gym, the writers asked Monica to come, as well as the volunteers who had typeset the poems and John, our book designer. It was a beautiful book launch and we all left the razor wire moved beyond words. We got back in the van and headed for Lincoln. And then Monica quietly started the game “Cows on My Side.” --Fran Kaye Professor

18: I never got a chance to take a class with Monica--she came to UNL before me--but I did get a chance to work with her a bit on Fran Kaye's prison poetry project and got to know her that way. I was so saddened to read on Facebook of Monica's passing, and even though we hadn't connected since leaving UNL, her death and the responses to it from the UNL students and former students who knew her remind me of her best qualities--the ability to connect with diverse people, a generosity of spirit, a willingness to collaborate, and a caring for others. Her work was wonderful, and though we'd have wished for Monica the time to create more, she has left a lasting mark, not only through her poetry but through her interactions with all of us. --Tracy Sanford Tucker MA 2011

19: I’m grateful to Monica for many memories: the magical, magnetized spoons incident in the diner, the way Monica made friends with other Detroit fans at the Angels-Tigers baseball game that summer in Anaheim. I’m grateful she took me to the LPA conference hotel to meet some of her friends. That she shared her community with me felt like a particularly generous act. I loved Monica, and I think we all did—she was easy to love. Around Monica one was never far from the spark of joy or an intense belly laugh. Even when we talked about our troubles, there was humor. Here are some of the reasons I loved Monica, in no particular order: -- Her fondness for stuffed animal -- Her strong voice, and the smart, wise things she said with it. -- Her ukulele and “The Rainbow Connection” -- The poems she left us, how I can hear her voice when I read them -- Her appreciation for beautiful scarves and interesting hats -- Her wisdom that pain is temporary and can be altered by perspective -- Her laugh—and that she once told me how she loved her mother’s laugh I remember a night in Lincoln—September, I think, of 2010. It was late, probably around ten, as we had a ritual of meeting Heather Stauffer for coffee after our respective night classes ended. We’d had our coffee and talked and laughed and shared our frustrations, but when it was time to head home, “the whale” wasn’t being easy. Thanks to Heather and jumper cables, she eventually rumbled to ignition. Monica drove me home then. Driving south on 16th Street, Toto’s “Africa” played. We both liked the song and sang, disappearing into the music and the vibration of our voices. I felt bathed in joy—not just a catharsis but a kind of spiritual renewal. I don’t think either of us recalled all the words to the song, but the chorus we knew: “It’s going to take a lot to drag me away from you/ There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever/ I bless the rains down in Africa/Gonna take some time to do the things we never have.” In the following days, we shared YouTube videos of choirs singing the song a cappella, using their hands to make soft rain sounds.

20: Ever after, the song has helped me feel closer to Monica than the miles separating us. When I found out she’d passed away, I was angry and unbelieving. How could the world lose someone it needed so much? I found videos of the song on YouTube again and listened, but I couldn’t understand that she was gone. I would not accept it. The Monday after Monica’s death, February 17th, I was riding in the car with Shannon on the way to Shannon’s sister’s apartment. I turned off the Punch Brothers Pandora station that had been playing through Shannon’s phone and let her drive in silence while I tried to make sense of losing Monica. How would her family and friends—all the communities she touched and was part of—how would we recover from this? Even Muggins. I was angry on Muggins behalf, not just my own. How was it that we wouldn’t see Monica again? That couldn’t be possible. I couldn’t wrap my mind around any of it. And then “Africa” started to play. Out of the silence. I didn’t know how it was happening, but it was. And I said to Shannon, who’d only met Monica once but knew how well-loved she was, “This song—this is the song Monica and I sang.” I told Shannon I didn’t understand how it was playing, and she said I should just sing. So I sang and cried and sang and hoped and believed I wasn’t singing alone. When it ended, I tried to figure out how it had happened. I thought maybe the car’s Bluetooth picked up music through my iPhone once I shut off Pandora on Shannon’s. So I picked up my phone to see if it was playing music, but it wasn’t. Still crying and awe-struck, I looked down at my phone again. What I saw took my breath away: the “search” function was open, the letter “T” in the search oval; below that, the phone offered several suggestions for the search I’d inadvertently—unknowingly—conducted. The top suggestion read: “Angels Ticketing.” I don’t know what kind of coincidence that is or how astronomically improbable the chain of events was. I do know I was comforted profoundly. And grateful. And in the presence of grace. -- Wendy Oleson Current PhD Candidate

21: Monica and I started the M.A. program together and shared several classes along the way. Our conversations over coffee ranged from personal challenges to the random and ridiculous. Somewhere in the middle of contemplating the benefits and disadvantages of hot vs. cold toddies, she asked if I would be interested in a short-term visitor (her plant, who at the time was known by the name “Jack”) while she was out of town. I dutifully kept the dozen or so leaves properly watered (lest Jack give Monica a negative report about vacationing in my apartment). When Monica returned, I dropped off Jack and a cutting from another plant. She seemed a little confused, but I explained that Jack had become good friends with this “other” plant, and really, who could refuse leaves like these? Monica took this in stride and occasionally sent me updates on Jack and the companion (“Beanstalk,” alias “Bean”). --Heather Stauffer MA 2012

22: I first met Monica while we were waiting for the elevator in Andrews Hall to take us from the basement to the third floor. I’d seen her around and said “hi” before that, but I didn’t really know her yet except to marvel at her fabulous hat collection (she never seemed to wear the same one twice). Mo was taking the elevator since she had her scooter and a bag loaded with work, and I had a bag loaded with the same. I’m not sure if this exchange took place after teaching or class for one or both of us. If I recall, we were commiserating over the piles of writing looming over our heads over the coming weekend, but soon, Monica’s trademark sense of humor made its appearance. I wish I could remember the series of zingers she told, but I’ll never forget our parting exchange. I commented that she was so quick with the jokes that she should be a stand-up comedienne—she already seemed to have a “set” prepared. She looked at me quizzically, deadpanning, “More like a sit down comedienne!” I fondly remember Monica enjoying warm fall and spring days on campus, sometimes strumming her ukulele, coming back from a quick coffee run in the Union, or just passing by. She loved to zoom past the group as we much slowly made our way to a Friday afternoon “No Name” reading at Zen’s. Mo supported all her fellow creative writers—even those of us literature folks who merely dabbled in the genre. I will always remember her great readings when she would debut a new poem like her creative, memorable piece generated by typing search terms into Google. Another great Monica memory I hold dear is the famous—or rather, infamous—Halloween party of 2009. Monica came as a ninja, and apparently, she and I were the only ones who got that memo since I dressed as a spy/ninja, too. We joked around, taking several photos together that night, a few of which I’m including in this lovely memory book. Monica was also well-known for throwing a shindig or two at her place, parties where she would bust out her Wii, and we’d all attempt to sing and play instruments karaoke-style. Her casual yet memorable graduation party—complete with paper cap and gown—at Yia Yia’s pizzeria was a highlight of the years Monica was here, too. All too soon it seemed that it was time for us to wish her well as she wrapped up her program and thesis and returned home

23: It was a pleasure and a privilege to know Monica during her time at UNL. From cavorting with her at Kate and Derek’s Halloween parties to simple chats in the corridors of Andrews Hall, I know I will never forget her. Her presence made everyone she knew that much better. Witty, funny, honest—Mo was a master wordsmith, not only in her poetry but in everyday conversation. I know she was loved and will be missed by me and all of her Lincoln friends --Aimee Allard PhD 2013

24: One time Monica said something funny and I automatically reached my hand out to pat her on the head. I quickly retracted it as my conscious self realized what an asshole move that was. Monica finished her funny story and I thought my action had gone unnoticed. But a few seconds later she said, "You were about to pat me on the head, weren't you?" We both dissolved into laughter. This story illustrates so many things about Monica, including her kickass, acerbic wit in the face of routine petty humiliations/microaggressions. She wouldn't take shit from anyone. She would make faces at toddlers who stared at her. She could turn situations in which she was the passive object of others' pity or amusement (or head pats) into situations where she was in control of the laughter. That's the definition of fierce. I will miss her. --Claire Harlan Orsi Current PhD student

25: Monica was a bright light. She was a student in my required seminar for new teachers of writing. People tend to be nervous in this course, because they’re teaching for the first time. Or sometimes, they’re a little cranky, because they’ve taught before and feel they don’t need to take this course again. Monica brought enthusiasm, excited questions, and bubbling ideas. And it was contagious. I thought often how lucky were her students, to be led by her example of commitment and humor, and her clear dedication to writing and writers. But even more—she wanted to let her students see who she was, so that they, too, could be themselves. Here is excerpt from a letter of recommendation I wrote her, which I hope shows just this dynamic: Most striking was Monica’s attention to her students, to understanding that who they are shapes how they write and learn. To help them see this connection, she is open about herself as a person and writer. As she wrote in one of her seminar papers, “Just as I refuse to ignore (in my own writing) what makes me different, I refuse to ignore the diversity in my students. I have found that a good way to encourage students to be open about their uniqueness is to exemplify that openness myself.” Monica goes on to explain how she used her own physical difference of dwarfism as a “focused example” for students’ third writing project, “Rhetoric with a Purpose,” in which they explore and report a personal stance to an external audience. She writes, “Many opt to hide the truth of their personal lives, but I believe such perspectives define our writing as much as they define us.” I learned much from Monica’s willingness to be seen, and her openness to connection with others. She made me laugh, and she reminded me why we teach, why we write. Her energy, kindness, and of course, humor touched so many lives at UNL and brightened the corridors of Andrews Hall. I am deeply sorry for your loss; the world is not the same without Monica. --Shari Stenberg Professor

26: I was admitted to the Department of English in the same year as Monica and took the English 999 course with her. Most of the new graduate students from the Fall 2008 class took the course together. I feel like all of the graduate students in this class remember Monica. She always took the seat in the first desk from the left in the front row of the classroom. She was always very sociable and arranged special meet-ups for all the girls taking the class to get to know each other better. I regret not attending the meetings due to a busy schedule and a lot of assignments. Although I was unable to connect with her personally during the semester as much as I would have liked, Monica and I successfully did a group presentation for the research project in that course, for which we exchanged frequent emails and met several times. In rereading these emails today, it has reminded me how nice and friendly Monica was all the time. And my fellow students in the class would also surely describe as a cute, nice and active student. I am very sorry for your loss. --Hye-Ran Jung current PhD student

27: Monica and I drove together from Lincoln to Mankato for Jennie Case and Kevin Lentz’s wedding. We two Protestants weren’t sure about how the Catholic wedding would go. We were pretty sure we weren’t supposed to take communion, but we didn’t know if we’d have to refuse it the way you wave off a waiter when you don’t want a refill. No, thanks. I’m good. Full up on host. We made it through communion, though, and thought we were home free. But then there was the Lord’s Prayer. In retrospect, Monica and I were overconfident about the Lord’s Prayer. We joined in with everyone else in loud, assured tones. “Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil for Thine is the kingdom” Wait. WAIT. Why were Monica’s and my voices the only two I heard echoing into the church? Apparently, the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer goes on a little longer than the Catholic version. Oops. With our eyes still closed, Monica and I took each other’s hands and shook and snorted with laughter at the mistake we shared. --Lesley Bartlett PhD 2012

28: It is impossible for me to think of my time at UNL without also thinking of Monica. We entered the MA program at the same time, and we had the exact same schedule our first semester: Poetry Writing, The Harlem Renaissance, and Intro to Research and Scholarship, along with assistantships with Prairie Schooner. Monica and I spent many afternoons and evenings together—new graduate students from the upper Midwest—talking about how we missed trees and water, and whether or not we could call ourselves writers. At UNL, the possibilities of writing suddenly became more real to both of us. Writing wasn’t just a hobby, or something we enjoyed while undergraduates and continued to dabble in on the side. It was a vocation, and we were enthralled by the writing community we found at Lincoln, as well as the writing community we created with each other. “There’s a poem in that,” Monica would tell me in the middle of a conversation, while we had lunch at Grateful Bread, or coffee at the Coffeehouse. “There’s a poem in that,” I would say in reply, during a dinner at my place where we made homemade pizza, a grading party interrupted by the baking of shortbread nuggets, or a leisurely ramble through A Novel Idea. We mined each other for writing ideas, returning our words and phrases like gifts. And when, during our second year, we began teaching composition and worrying about what to do after graduation, we kept each other sane and playful with random writing retreats. We’d meet at each other’s apartments, brew a pot of coffee, and give each other prompts. We’d stop in at one of the local coffee shops, stake out a table and open our notebooks. Shortly after we held our mock graduation, dawning black garbage bags and paper plates as our caps and gowns, Monica met me in my hometown of Mankato, Minnesota. We wrote at a local state park, and then my two favorite coffee shops. We promised that we would continue to meet for writing adventures—a task made difficult once we moved to different states, but a task we nonetheless embraced. Skype and two steaming cups of coffee, we decided, could almost replicate those moments we’d shared.

29: Shortly after Thanksgiving this past year, I received a package in the mail from Monica. Inside, I found a green mug she’d painted in Michigan, the words “Me Time” written just inside the rim. “I thought you might like an excuse to take your Me Time,” she wrote. “I thought maybe you could almost feel me having coffee there with you when you use this mug. As I write this, I am enjoying Celtic music and pjs and coffee in the mug I made myself. My mug is orange, traditional, stoic shaped, and has ‘MoFrow’s Mug’ wrapped around the front.So our mugs are kind of like a weird, grown-up version of BFFF bracelets. But cooler!” Cooler indeed. --Jennie Case MA 2010

30: I was saddened to learn of the sudden death of Monica, who was a delightful graduate student in our department. I vividly recall meeting Monica for the first time--she was so excited to be here at UNL. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and I remember her smiles and laughter with great enjoyment. When she applied to our department for the M.A. program, one of her former professors told us that despite the physical challenges that had been so much a part of her life, Monica “has a sense of wholeness I rarely see.” That “wholeness” was an inspiration for all of us who met and knew her. Monica was a deservedly popular member of our department during the time that she was here--always ready to participate in an event, offer her help, or share her many creative gifts. I offer my sincere sympathy to the Rentfrow family. Please know that Monica was a valued member of our department--then and now. --Susan Belasco Professor and Department Chair

31: Dear Mo, If either of us had smoked, we would have been the light-up kind of friends, the ones who run into each other mid-day and with one look know to make our way to the smoker’s lounge, where we’d huddle under a short overhang in the rain. We’d bring matches and an empty coke can so we could douse our cigarettes after lighting our doubts utterly on fire. If we had been drinkers, which sometimes we were, we would have drunk tequila and gin, then shook our heads slowly the next day while walking to campus hung-over and in pain, though you would have ridden your scooter and I would have stooped 20 degrees into the wind with a backpack as tall as you were in stocking feet, and I wonder if I’ll ever get used to talking about the past without you present, or talking about you in past tense. If you and I had been smart-alecks, which definitely we were, we would have told everyone we were identical twins, separated at birth. Never mind the twenty-plus years between us or our difference in height. You can tell by the brown hair, you would say. And our sparkling brown eyes, I would add. We would clink glasses or fist bump, before you ninja- threatened everyone with, Better leave my sister alone or I’ll have to kick your ass. If you and I still lived in the same state, when they induced your state of coma, I would have sat by your bedside and read you racy novels about gutsy women who pursue every first with gusto – first woman to climb Everest, first woman to communicate with whales, first to loop-de-loop in a Ventura three-wheeled scooter. I’d play ukelele recordings of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and never stop holding your hand. --Jill Johnson Current Phd Candidate

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  • By: Claire H.
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  • Title: Memories of Monica
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  • Published: over 5 years ago