The Jenkins girls didn't need to know what made their elderly neighbor so extraordinary. They would learn that in time. For now it was more than enough just to feel the love.
Evalyn Gullstrand celebrated their births and early milestones, the first steps, first birthdays. As soon as they could talk, Tori and Olivia called her "Gully,'' which suited her fine.
She especially enjoyed Halloween when the girls' parents, Debby and Rich Jenkins, brought them by to show off their costumes. Gully clapped and cheered and hugged.
Eight years ago, Gully turned 89 and decided it would be best to leave her daughter Jeanne Bles' home in Hudson and move to an adult living facility. The Jenkins family not only kept in regular contact, but they also used the occasion to begin a tradition.
Debby wanted Gully to continue the joy of seeing the girls in their Halloween costumes, so she took them over to the Amberwood home on State Road 52 along with candy to pass out to the residents.
"When we saw the happiness that the children brought in the short visit, we decided we should do it again the next year,'' Debby recalled.
Gully moved to Atria Baypoint Village, and the Jenkins family followed even after moving several miles south to Trinity four years ago. They invited more children, who delighted the residents with costumes, candy and enthusiasm. Debby gave the event a name: "Reverse Trick or Treat.''
"It was a great way to teach the children about the joys of giving,'' she said, "not just receiving.''
As Tori and Olivia grew, they understood more why everyone thought Gully was so special. They thought it so cool that she could zip down the hallways behind her silver walker, faster than any of the other residents. They learned of her selfless history.
Gully grew up in Michigan poor like most everybody else of her generation. After high school, she worked as a house maid for a wealthy family in Flint. In 1936, she married Wendell, a factory worker for Buick.
A car accident left Wendell with crippling injuries and in January 1961 they moved into a mobile home in New Port Richey. Gully cared for her husband and kept him as physically fit as possible with daily dips in the Gulf of Mexico or the Pithlachascotee River. She pinched their pennies, made her own pasta noodles and bread. She sewed quilts and all their clothing. She mowed the yard, trimmed the trees, fixed appliances, cleaned the house. She made time to volunteer for several years at the senior center in New Port Richey.
Wendell died in 1985, but Gully continued as a caregiver for her widowed mother until she died in 1995 at age 94.
"She took care of everybody and never once complained or stopped smiling,'' her daughter said. "I never saw her angry or impatient.''
Two years ago, she seemed to be failing and doctors moved her to hospice care. "She supposedly had 24 hours to live,'' her daughter said, "but she fooled them.''
Gully entered the Bear Creek nursing home, the same place her mother had spent her final days.
By now, the Reverse Trick or Treat had grown to more than 30 kids, including Tori and Olivia's friends from Seven Springs Middle and Trinity Elementary schools. After they gave out candy at Atria, the Jenkins girls walked next door to Bear Creek to be with Gully.
A few weeks ago, costumed kids converged once again on Atria Baypoint Village. This time the group swelled to 50, including several foster children. Rich, a licensed coordinator for foster families through his job at Eckerd, made the arrangements. Tori, 13, dressed as a surfer; Olivia, 9, a raccoon.
This time, they didn't make it over to Bear Creek. Gully had taken a spill a few days earlier and had bruised her face. Debby didn't want her daughters to see her that way, knowing they would be upset. They would visit her when she felt better.
Five days later, Gully died in her sleep.
Rich posted this on his Facebook page:
"Today I saw my daughters cry. And I was proud. They wept over the passing of a woman who was nearly 90 years their senior … They shared secrets, holidays and birthdays with Gully. They marveled at the stories she told about her own youth. My children learned from her that it is okay to be elderly. They learned kindness and they learned dignity. I was unaware of how deeply they truly cared for Gully and how much she had touched their little lives until this morning. I saw my daughters cry. And I was proud.''
The Halloween tradition will go on, Debby Jenkins promised.
"I'd like to see it spread to other assisted-living facilities,'' she said. "I know this: Gully's spirit will live on. She remains part of us.''