Be it ever so humble, this is home, and she’s proud of it
By Barry Ginter
Heidi Manfroi leaned forward in her wheelchair, laughing as she told the story of the baby chipmunk that got caught in her hair one year when she lived at Lake Tahoe. She couldn’t be late for work, so she left it there and reported for her shift on time as a dealer in a casino.
A hairdresser helped her get it out later that day.
“It was perfectly happy in there … it was sleeping,” she said.
A breeze rustled through the old aspen tree and the mottled sunlight on her mobile home danced. Heidi’s stories carried like music and I thought it likely the neighbors were enjoying them, too.
We sat on the weathered deck, where many years ago she’d hosted meetings of the Carson City Ski Club. I was eating a heaping bowl of firm, sweet blueberries and a croissant. She’d purchased them that morning, knowing that guests were coming. She didn’t say it, but I knew what it had taken for her to do that: Heidi had pushed her wheelchair to the edge of the deck, then used the railing to guide herself down to the electric wheelchair in the yard. Then she piloted the wheelchair more than a mile to the grocery store and bakery, crossing Highway 50 on the way there and back.
As I listened to her stories, I realized an hour had gone by. I had not even asked her the questions that had brought me there.
I wanted to ask her if it were true she’d spent last winter inside this mobile home with no heat. Was it true she had no water heater, no shower, no bathtub, no appliances other than a microwave oven?
These things were true, as I’d learn later. But I am happy I got to know her first.
This 69-year-old woman had lived. Born in Switzerland, she’d come to the United States – cabin class on the Queen Elizabeth – at age 19 alone because she wanted no part of the man her mother wanted her to marry. Many jobs and places followed, but she spent much of her life as a ski instructor around Lake Tahoe. For several years, she stayed in a cabin at a home owned by baseball great Jackie Jensen and his wife. The rent was free as long as she gave ski lessons to his guests.
She lived in Carson City after that for several years, busy always politically and socially. She loves to talk of the fly-ins they planned when she was president of the Pilots’ Association. Then she left for California for several years to more adventures and a degree in chiropractic medicine. She even ran for the Oakland City Council, finishing fifth out of eight candidates.
The morning coolness had lifted and I glanced at the dark interior of her home. She invited me inside.
From the threshold I could see immediately what her life was like now. To the left, in the main room, there were cardboard boxes of her belongings stacked in the middle, with just enough room for her wheelchair around the edge. There were no chairs or table or anything that would set the room apart from a run-down storage unit. The floor was bare particleboard. The walls were unfinished and the insulation was exposed in several places. To the right were the other three rooms, but there was no longer a wall between what had been the bathroom and the kitchen.
Last winter, she used black plastic to seal off those three rooms as a living area where she could sleep and use the toilet and microwave oven. She used two space heaters, but was never able to get the temperature higher than 47 degrees.
To bathe, she heats water in a ceramic tea kettle in the microwave oven and gives herself a sponge bath. She does this often … she takes pride in her appearance. Her hair is neatly combed and her clothes are spotless.
This is where Heidi hopes to live the rest of her life.
She plans to gradually fix up her home again and make it handicapped accessible. She hopes, after she’s gone, another handicapped person can live there.
Living on Social Security of about $600 each month, she will need help if that is ever to happen. When there has been money left after food and utility bills and paying the taxes, she’s hired help to begin fixing the plumbing and the walls. But there’s seldom extra money and she refuses to be late on her taxes – she won’t let anyone take her home away.
“I am poor as anything, but I am proud,” she said.
We didn’t stay inside long. Back in the bright light on the deck, we talked more, about how this used to be a nice part of town, about how meticulous she’d been in planting flowers and taking care of her home.
As I walked down the steps, I turned to see her wheeling herself back up the board that served as a ramp over the threshold. I wondered how hot it would be in there that afternoon.
It is a difficult life to be elderly and alone, to be poor and to be in a wheelchair, but there was never sadness in Heidi’s voice, nor self-pity. I remembered the four words she said several times, each time in the same strong voice, as though she were answering a question before it could be asked.
“This is my home.”
• • •
There are many seniors in Northern Nevada who live in poverty. It is Janice Ayres’ mission, as director of RSVP, to get them help.
There is never enough money or enough volunteers to reach all of them, she said, and seniors are paid little heed in the Legislature. There was $300,000 in the budget last session to provide home care for seniors. It was cut.
“No one ever thinks about seniors on the downside of their lives,” Ayres said. “Seniors get the short end of the stick nationally and they get the short end of the stick in Nevada.”
Ayres is trying to line up help for Manfroi … coupons, appliances, volunteer labor, anything she can find. But she’s also searching for help for many other seniors, even if it’s volunteers who can visit seniors who live alone.
If you’re interested in helping, you can learn more about RSVP by visiting the Web site http://www.nevadaruralrsvp.org, or by calling (775) 687-4680.
• Barry Ginter is editor of the Appeal. You can reach him at 881-1221, or by e-mail at email@example.com