Whiffs of lasagna and garlic bread floated into the evening air whenever someone opened the front door, which was often. Niece after nephew and grand-niece after grand-nephew came from near and far for the special occasion. And when it seemed like Anne Epeldi’s living room couldn’t hold any more people, a few more stuffed in. This was a big deal, after all: Anne’s 95th birthday.
Anne never had children, but her only sister, Nancy, had seven. When they started having their own kids, Anne tried to keep up with all 17 grand-nieces and nephews — no easy feat.
Grand-nephew Jess Simonds: “She considers us her family and we consider her family.”
The family gathered at the Bench home that Anne and her husband, Joe, bought in 1959 with their combined savings. Joe passed away almost 30 years ago, so Anne lives alone, surrounded by all her carefully labeled knickknacks (date of purchase and price neatly taped on the bottom), her beloved photo albums and all the treasures that mark the decades of her life.
Her greatest wish: to be there, in her home, for all the rest of her days.
Would that it was as simple as that. Even before she fell in June, fracturing her femur and a bone in her pelvis, for Anne to live alone required — if not a community — at least a family. Her family.
Grand-nephew Gregg Simonds: “She’s given us so much, I figure I can give back to her. Since she didn’t have children, we’re kind of like her grandchildren.”
For the last 10 years, Gregg, 24, has cared for Anne’s yard — she used to be a fastidious gardener. He mows the lawn, trims the flowers and strives to keep the bushes as clean as Anne’s standards require. Meals on Wheels provides nutrition; a weekly visit from Anne’s beloved church provides spiritual sustenance.
When it became clear that Anne needed someone to pop in for just a little bit every day, Louisa Simonds stepped up. Louisa is the wife of Gregg’s brother and Anne’s grand-nephew, Jess.
Louisa: “Annie’s easy to be around. ... I value the time with her and the kids really like it. I can tell that when she sees my children — she loves babies, that youthfulness in her life — she just lights up.”
The rock of Anne’s independence, however, is her nephew’s wife, Deborah Simonds, a retired nurse, who has legal and medical power of attorney. For the past 20 years, she has been Anne’s touchstone — daily phone calls, every-other-day visits, frank conversation, medical oversight — and with a gentle ferocity, is Anne’s advocate in all things.
Jess: “The fact of the matter is Annie wouldn’t have been able to stay in her home if it wasn’t for my mom. Other family members are great and they’re around and they write letters, but my mom is her best friend. At this point, my mom is almost like a mother to her. She brings that comfort — although she’s also the person Annie gives more orders to.”
It was Anne who cared for Deborah’s sons, Gregg and Jess, while Deborah was working. Deborah calls Anne a lifesaver.
Deborah: “So it’s kind of a payback. ...
“She’s given so much — to my family, my sons, to her mother and father. And in the grand scheme of earthly things, everybody has a right to self-determination and dignity and unconditional positive regard. And she deserves it because she’s been that way her entire life.
“Not only does she deserve it, everybody deserves it.”
Anne’s parents are both from Italy. The story is that had immigration officials known that Anne’s mother was pregnant, they wouldn’t have allowed her to set sail to America. As it was, her mother hid her pregnancy and Anne was born — one of just 350 babies — on Ellis Island.
Traveling by train and horse and buggy, Anne’s mother and father, Stella and Julius Mastro, brought their infant and 2-year-old daughter, Nancy, to Boise in 1920. Anne’s father was a stone mason; work brought him to Idaho.
Jess: “She really has lived a unique life. ... She has a great connection to Boise and I certainly am proud to know my great-grandpa and family helped build the Capitol and St. John’s Cathedral.
“It’s something to be proud of.
“Annie’s someone to be proud of.”
In her oral history, Anne says, “Ethnic children were considered second-class citizens, especially if your address was ‘across the tracks.’ I used to just dread it when the teacher asked for my address.”
From those difficult childhood experiences come her adult philosophy: “If you treat people respectfully, they’ll treat you right.”
Jess: “When you ask her about where she’s gotten to in life and how she got there, she talks about her parents coming to the U.S. The constant is, ‘It’s the land of opportunity.’ That’s how she feels and that’s how she will always feel. She says here you can make something of yourself and you can get a job. That’s what America is to her and her parents.
“She expected us to save money and be hard working. When we would come back to visit her when we were in college, she would always ask us, do you have a plan for after college and getting a job? I probably didn’t have a great idea of where I was going to end up, (so) talking to her allowed me to think to myself, ‘Where am I going to be when I graduate?’”
Anne grew up in a house at 410 S. Fourth St., which was torn down only recently. As babies, she and her sister slept in dresser drawers; she likes that part of the story. Her mother, who never learned much English, was a skilled seamstress. Stella made wine for the family, smoked meat in the shed, made salad from dandelion greens gathered in Julia Davis Park, cooked Italian food.
Anne would walk across Capital Boulevard — a dirt road — to get ice for the ice box. She graduated from Boise High School in 1938, the first of three generations. The Epeldi family, who would eventually become Anne’s in-laws, ran a Basque boarding house down the street.
Louisa: “One of the most impressive things about her: Here is this woman who was an immigrant, born on Ellis Island, and she’s basically a liberal feminist. ...
“She knew what she wanted. Knowing she wasn’t going to college, she took typing, bookkeeping and shorthand in high school. She met Joe because, she’ll tell you, she made the first move. When you think about the time, that was not very normal. She’ll tell you, ‘You want to meet a guy, sometimes you have to go out and get him.’
“He lived across the street from her and she made the first move — she offered him a ride one day. Two months later, they were married. (After they were married, he told her that one of the reasons he married her was because she never asked him how much money he had.)
“She got her job at Fish and Game and worked her way up, retiring after 37 years. She’s very proud of that. She has this book at her house from her retirement full of memos from everybody who worked with her. I was reading it to her recently and it’s just amazing; people really loved and valued her. ... She didn’t have kids, so she devoted her time to her work.”
These days, instead of coming to her house, Deborah and Louisa and the rest of the family come to see Anne at a rehab nursing facility.
Louisa: “We went there this morning and Penelope (Anne’s 3-year-old great-grand-niece) , says, ‘What is this place?’ I said it’s a place where older people go. She says, ‘But Annie’s not older. She’s just old. ...
“Apparently her young spirit shines through to Penelope.”
Anne is doing physical therapy so that she’ll become stronger and then maybe — maybe she can go home. The family is talking about what it would take to make that happen and who could contribute what.
Louisa: “She says (this place) is ‘fine until I get home. They’re taking good care of me until I can get home.’ ...
“She doesn’t have dementia, she doesn’t have really serious care, she just needs someone to bring her to the bathroom, check her blood pressure, make sure she’s eating. And most importantly, from my perspective, to make sure she feels loved and happy. ...
“I know she’s thinking, ‘ How do I want the rest of my life to be? ’ And she wants the rest of her life to be in the comfort of her own home.”
That Anne — that everyone — isn’t going to live forever lurks in the shadows.
Louisa: “She means a lot to me; she’s been a big part of the kids’ lives. ... Those will become good lessons, that people go to heaven, that people aren’t around forever.
“But you hope you leave your mark on the world, and I think Anne’s done a great job of doing that. She’s definitely made a big mark in our lives. ...
“We just pray that she can have that beautiful death in her home, watching her TV, surrounded by all her knickknacks and everything of hers, and just quietly pass. Like anybody hopes to go.
“Hopefully that’s not tomorrow. ...
“As long as you have people who care about you, you can live the kind of life you want straight to the end.”