When I grow up, I want to be Patsy Detamore.
She is 87, lives in Plant City, has graying curls and a perfect pink manicure. When I met her, she lay in a patient room at Tampa General Hospital, a pack of white-coated young doctors huddled around her battered, swollen, bandaged ankle, muttering to themselves.
The ankle was, to use a non-medical term, shattered, though not due to a slip in the tub nor the tip of a cane badly placed on a throw rug. Mrs. Detamore had been, in point of fact, skydiving, which may have had something to do with the doctors' mutterings.
Here is how she tells it: She was in the plane June 3, tethered to the instructor for the tandem jump, leaping out at 7,000 feet over the earth, except something went wrong and her ankle smashed against the metal of the plane and they went all the way down that way. She makes it sound like an adventure.
Well, she had broken a bone or two before. In judo, which she took up at the age of 39.
Her three daughters were against an entry for "skydiving" on Mrs. Detamore's bucket list. Two thought it was a bad idea, and the third wanted mom to wait until they could jump together. This daughter she refers to as her Bad Influence.
So how do you end up three years shy of 90 with the chutzpah to jump out of a plane?
In her small hospital room, she described a life that sounded like it was out of a novel. Raised on the family ranch in Montana, she grew up independent and hiked all day "knowing I would never see another person." Her father gave her a rifle when she was 14. When she shot her first chipmunk, he said she would have to eat what she killed. That stayed with her.
In an improbable plot twist, her father took a job in the Panama Canal Zone. She remembered rain like she had never seen before, and the smells of musty leaves mixed with diesel fuel. There she married Jerry Detamore, raised her girls and stayed 39 years. She self-published a book titled, I am not making this up, Mama Wore Jungle Boots. I especially liked the part where she learns to check her shoes for scorpions and spiders.
Motherhood was her career. After her Bad Influence took up judo, so did she. Mrs. Detamore has a black belt.
She and her husband later traveled the states in a trailer. "We could wake up in the morning at home, but in a completely new place," she says. After he died, she settled in Florida near her youngest, Cathy Denton, who lives in Valrico.
Naturally, one of Mrs. Detamore's comforters won a blue ribbon in the Strawberry Festival.
She has nine grandchildren who do not call her grandma or, heaven forbid, granny. She is Lita, short for abuelita, a Spanish word for grandmother. It is not uncommon for one of them to say, "Lita, you're crazy."
"In admiration," Mrs. Detamore says, "I think."
If you ask her how to have a happy and interesting life, she says she chose her parents wisely. She went from a big, nurturing family to marrying "a gentle man." The rest apparently is attitude.
The same day I met Mrs. Detamore, I also happened to stop at a big grocery store that is connected to a dark, upstairs parking garage. An escalator takes you down into the store. But this day, the escalator was broken, as steep and still as a staircase, and an elderly woman stood at the top, eyeing it. She took my arm and we went down together, step by excruciatingly slow step, me itching to get my errand done and be gone.
She told me she had taken a huge step herself that morning, figuratively speaking. She was too nervous to go to the grocery alone, with that parking garage and all the crime in the world. But she hated how she had to wait for someone to take her, hated feeling stuck at home. So that day, she did it. She drove and parked and tucked her purse under her arm inside her sweater and she did it. "You can't be afraid," she told me as we stepped off the last step and she went off toward the tomatoes. It sounded a little like skydiving.
On Mrs. Detamore's last day in the hospital before she went off to rehab, she told me her bucket list was down to "a pleasant ride in a helicopter." I pictured a helicopter doing somersaults. Any more skydiving? "No, I've done that," she said, eyes dancing. Soon, her Bad Influence will come to stay with her. You wonder what they will get up to.
When I called later, her daughter Cathy said her mom added one more to the list.
"She wants to go on a zipline."