Mom and I are both feeling more than a little heartboken that her sassy best friend at the memory care facility got whisked into a nursing home by her adult children with no prior notice. This family didn’t visit often, so they would’ve had no idea about the bond that she and Mom shared, and how much Anita meant to us. We never got to say goodbye or get her new phone number. This spitfire 94-year old, who I’m calling “Anita” to protect her identity, called herself Mom’s “watcher”. In the picture above she’s modeling her favorite heels for me, standing next to her walker.
She was actually quite disappointed that I didn’t get her huge sparkly earrings and purple eyeshadow in the photo, but without knowing her family and how they’d feel about a total stranger blogging about their elderly mother in dementia care, I decided to maximize her anonymity. I couldn’t resist a few pictures, though. Anita will no doubt be the Centenarians of America’s next top model.
Not known for her tact, I pretty much despised Anita the first month she was around.
“What the hell is wrong with you,” she’d yell at Mom at every meal I witnessed. “We all have problems. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and eat your damn potatoes before I shove them down your throat.” She’d bark it out with a giant smile, always adding, “I’m just teasing you, sweetie. Pick your head up.” Then she’d rub Mom’s hand and tell her how beautiful she was.
Mom took a fancy to her (as did I), though she understandably got overwhelmed by Anita following her around all day making her loud, pungent comments. It was a love-hate relationship, or so it seemed, and maybe not the healthiest one, but now that she’s gone, we both yearn for her bittersweet humor that kept slashing through the reality of the institution.
“This isn’t food,” she’d yell at the staff. “This is fodder! But I’m not sure what kind of animal would eat it.”
As you might guess, Anita, Mom and I bonded on the desire for good food, so she was always the most enthusiastic and faithful guest at our real food parties in the main dining room, whenever I could bring meals in. Anita would rave with pleasure, and shuffling in her heels, helped me pass bites around to the residents. She would especially be sure the ones seemingly on their last leg, who never smiled got a taste. She got a kick, like I did, from the look on their face when they got to eat something they recognized.
“You’re an old fashioned girl,” she’d tell me on every visit. “You know good food and you take great care of your mother – they just don’t make those these days.”
To get a compliment from Anita, who was unsatisfied with everything, made my day, even though she said the same phrase every time, and even if she said it only to motivate me to bring her more feta and olives.
Anita did such a great job keeping tabs on Mom that I never worried if I missed a visit. She would make the staff call me if she had any concerns about Mom, grab the phone from them, and fill me in.
Anita told me many times about how she’d grown up from poverty in a huge single parent home, graduated with honors, and found a powerful position with the Chicago Tribune Newspaper at a time when most women didn’t do such things. She’d had to pull no punches to get there, which is maybe why at 94 she could still tear the staff members to shreds with her tongue, and the same night could charm their pants off with parties for them in her room every night, feeding them expensive chocolates. Anita could still move mountains, even with mild dementia, and she took Mom on as her retirement project, something I became incredibly grateful for.
Despite a touch of dementia, Anita knew her rights, knew how the residents should be treated, complained loudly about injustices, and wasn’t afraid to use throw the immense, righteous weight of huge personality around. I never saw her in flat shoes, though sometimes she wore her leopard print pajamas to dinner with her gold heels.
“Why not,” she’d smirk, “I’m retired, aren’t I?”
It took me a long time to see behind Anita’s irritating sense of entitlement and notice her gigantic heart. At dinner, she liked to sit next to one of the men who was mute due to Parkinson’s, and hold his hands steady so he could grab the food with his fork. It gave her so much pleasure to get a smile out of him that she’d work at it for over an hour sometimes, teasing him and cracking jokes.
I could tell five other similar stories about that side of her- Anita the guardian angel. Most of all, she kept the staff on their toes. There was a lot that slipped through the cracks before Anita moved in. Now that she’s gone, there’s no resident with her stamina, verbal capacity, or mental connections to advocate for peers and serve as the sentinel.
Anita’s presence made a huge difference. I wonder if her family had ever known all the little details of her days that showed the impact she had on so many people, if they still would’ve moved her away so abruptly.