#52in52 Week 40: MaryAnn Sterkel

#52in52 Week 40: MaryAnn Sterkel

The evening I sat down to write this entry I was returning from the funeral of my grandmother.  My last remaining grandparent.  Just a few nights prior I was sitting down one house to the east in the living room of my neighbor, MaryAnn.

Aimee and I have fed MaryAnn many times over the years – in large part because she doesn’t cook and she hates the food provided by Meals on Wheels.  Apparently they don’t use enough salt.  MaryAnn even bums the meals off on others. On a few of the bachelor nights I’ve had over the past couple of years MaryAnn has forced her pre-packaged meals on me.  They’re not as bad as she makes them out to be.  But they aren’t great either.


I asked her to tell me about her family heritage.  She said she doesn’t know anything about where her family is from.

“Why not?”

“Never asked,” she laughed.

MaryAnn was adopted by her aunt as a young girl.  Malnourished, she was often drugged to sleep by her biological mother with an opioid called paregoric. Her mother almost killed her.  It was severe neglect. So her aunt and uncle stepped in and really, truly, became her parents.

But eventually her mother wanted her back to help care for the other kids.  That was quickly shut down by her adoptive family.  MaryAnn would never return to that unstable household.


She adores animals and told me about a show she loves called Pit Bulls and Parolees.  She’s pretty much always watching Animal Planet.  I’ve never been in her home and seen any other channel on the television.  I asked how she came to love animals so much.  She said her family and, particularly her dad, cared for animals — so it was instilled in her early on.  They always had pets.

The particular show on that night featured a half dozen small animals being graphically neutered.  It showcased several various methods of the procedure.  All of which included cutting, blood, and severed parts.


I made sausage and boiled cabbage that night and brought it to her.  She loved it, devouring that cabbage like it was a delicacy in danger of spoilage.  I told her about my grandma making boiled cabbage when I was a kid.  Only my uncle Larry and I ever really ate it.  But I developed a taste and a fondness for it.  Boiled in what amounts to seawater, it picks up a savory salinity that brings about a comforting warmth.


MaryAnn told me her aunt and uncle couldn’t have kids.  She is now the only one alive in her family, other than her daughter.


She watched TV for a bit after finishing her meal.  She watches TV alone every day.  Every night.  Except for the occasional visitor from home healthcare or a local charity or church or a neighboring home, she spends much of her time alone.

I took the quiet opportunity to ask her about the decline of American social life.  I told her of a book I’m reading called Bowling Alone – the thesis of which is that TV and Internet technology have accelerated the downfall of social groups, clubs, and other forms of face-to-face human interaction. And she seized the moment to complain about sagging pants.

“Were there no fashion trends when you were younger that people scoffed at?”


“What about poodle skirts?  Those were pretty weird!”

She huffed at me. “They were cute.”


MaryAnn is pretty quick-witted.  Usually.  She still remembers her home addresses from her childhood.  The contrast is stark between MaryAnn and my grandmother during her final years.  Grandma Joan suffered from dementia.  It took her from us for many years before she finally succumbed to it.  To see someone like MaryAnn is inspiring — so often very agile of mind at such a golden age.  Unfortunately, her happiness has waned over the years.  Loneliness has gripped her.  Heartache has had her.  In fact, her husband died in that very home in 2011, soon before we moved into the neighborhood.

MaryAnn is so fortunate to have her mental faculties in place.  Aging can be brutal on the mind and body. And aside from some stints in medical homes, she has maintained a life of relative physical comfort and remained in the home she’s had for over six decades.  End of life can generally go one of two ways: like MaryAnn or like Joan.

My blog experience with MaryAnn was atypical compared to that of most of these blog meals.  It wasn’t an interview.  There was no agenda.  It was almost entirely focused on providing comfort and company to a neighbor.  A friend.

As someone aging, but still relatively young, it’s hard for me to imagine what life would be like when my utility in the workforce has passed.  It’s hard to dream of a world where I’m not regularly surrounded by family and friends.  All around us are neighbors like MaryAnn, though.  We live in a world where people bowl alone. People eat alone.  Neighbors rarely network or even talk beyond pleasantries.  But Aimee and our neighbors Janet and Smitty have cared for MaryAnn as if she is of our own family.  I stop by and chat when I can.  But I often feel guilt for not taking the time.  I didn’t take the time with my grandmother, either, and will carry a weight of neglectfulness with me for some time to come. I wrote recently that part of me felt that grandma wouldn’t remember my visits anyhow.  But that’s probably no excuse.

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