ST. PETERSBURG — On a recent Wednesday, just before 9 a.m., Susan Allen, 71, steered her husband’s wheelchair into the museum lobby and gazed at the glittering glass.
Her husband, Richard Rolfes, 88, stared straight ahead.
“Oh, hi! Hey!” called a woman, waving beside her own husband’s wheelchair. “Great to see you!”
“I didn’t know you all would be here,” said Susan, smiling.
The Chihuly Collection wouldn’t open for another hour. But the women had come early, had gotten their husbands out of the house and here to the Morean Arts Center, for a Memory Morning.
“This is our first one,” Susan said. “We don’t know what will happen.”
“Our fourth,” said Madaline O’Berry, 77. But for her husband, Bill, 82, she said, “It’s new every time.”
The women met in the gym at the Sunshine Senior Center in St. Petersburg five years ago. Before their husbands got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Richard was first, in 2018. The next year, Bill.
“I had to get him one of those buttons, the fall-down alerts,” Susan said.
“We have one now, too. A medic alert on a chain, like a dog tag. But he won’t wear it,” Madaline said. “I don’t blame him.”
“I know,” Susan said, shaking her head.
A volunteer welcomed the couples, then ushered them past a photo of artist Dale Chihuly.
“He just had his 80th birthday,” the volunteer said.
Susan and Madaline exchanged glances. Almost as old as their husbands.
“Right this way,” the guide said.
The Memory Mornings program started about a year ago, after another woman from the senior center was searching for things to do with her husband, who has dementia. She talked to a staff member at the Morean Arts Center, who pitched the idea to offer free tours of the Chihuly Collection for dementia patients and their caregivers. With a grant from the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas Inc., 54 people have taken tours so far.
As Susan and Madaline pushed the wheelchairs past the rainbow tubes of the “Carnival Chandelier,” then beneath the twirling, ocean-hued tendrils of “Azul de Medianoche,” they wondered what their husbands were seeing — what they understood.
“Okay, this is our Persian Sunset Wall,” the volunteer announced in a side room, where soft lights danced off blood orange and crimson bowls. The sculptures bloomed from the walls, their fluted rims lipsticked with darker shades.
“So, what do you notice?” the volunteer asked.
Bill said suddenly, “No two are alike!”
Madaline seemed surprised. “They remind me of our sunsets right here in St. Pete,” she said, rubbing his shoulder. “The way the clouds reflect off the water.”
Madaline and Bill met working at the GTE phone company in St. Petersburg. They raised five children, have 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They’ve been married 56 years.
Richard doesn’t remember it, but he met Susan at a Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Maryland. He was a banker. She became a professor. Each had a child from a previous marriage, and now, married 36 years, they have six grandkids.
Both women have taken over the finances and the driving. Both help their husbands bathe. Both know the fear of leaving for a gallon of milk.
Both try to take their husbands out, to find that rare place, for once not a doctor’s office, where they’ll feel safe. Where people are patient.
They’re grateful to still have their husbands home, but they crave something to talk about other than reruns of “The Big Bang Theory.” Even an hour of respite — if not from caregiving, at least from loneliness.
The guide told them Chihuly wears a pirate patch because, during a car accident, a sliver of glass pierced his eye. “It gave him a different perspective,” the guide said. “Seeing things from other angles is always illuminating.”
Madaline gazed at the smooth, curving basins and pointed up. “Yes, look at how the light tips and turns with the shadows,” she told Susan. “Even the darkness is part of the art.”
After threading through the museum, the couples turned into a craft room to make their own art. Pastels, paint, a brush and cup of water waited by each chair, along with a four-part plan for how to paint “Chihuly Persian Sunset Inspired Flowers.”
“So get out your red pastel and make four dots,” said the teacher.
Richard looked at his wife.
“Grab your crayon,” Susan said softly. “See what she’s doing up there?” Richard picked up orange chalk, examining it. “I know you’re more of a numbers person than a painting person,” Susan said. “But try it. Just make small dots.”
He drew a couple of circles. “What’s this?” he asked, picking up the paint brush.
“To add paint,” Susan said.
Richard smashed the brush into the oval of dry black. “This is your water here,” Susan said, sliding him the glass. “You want to put some on your brush.”
At another table, Bill had drawn circles around his dots to create flowers, but couldn’t figure out how to wet his brush to paint the petals. “What are you doing?” Madaline asked.
“I don’t know,” he said sadly.
“Dip it in there,” said Madaline, guiding his hand. “That’s why it’s called watercolor.”
Bill laughed. Suddenly, beneath his brush, scarlet poppies began to bloom.
For the next few minutes, the room was silent, except for the faint tinks of brush handles on jars. Everyone concentrating and creating. Not worrying about what they couldn’t do, or what would come next.
Madaline told Bill they should hang their paintings in the hall, show their grandkids. Susan helped Richard make gray clouds around his dots.
“Where do we stop? When do we know we’re done?” Susan asked.
“We don’t stop,” Madaline told her friend. “Keep going. We just keep going.”
If you go
The Morean Arts Center is offering free Memory Mornings through the Chihuly Collection on:
Sunday, Sept. 25, 11 a.m.
Wednesday, Oct. 26, 9 a.m.
Sunday, Nov. 20, 11 a.m.
Wednesday, Dec. 21, 9 a.m.
Caregivers must pre-register themselves and dementia patients for each hour-long event, which includes a presentation and art project. Tours take place at the museum at 719 Central Ave. St. Petersburg.
Register at www.moreanartscenter.org/accessibility or call 727-822-7872.
About this series
Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Claire McNeill at email@example.com.