Nursing home residents share their life stories

Mary Parente, 98, tells of coming to the United States by ship at age 5 and living in Mechanicville

Mary Parente, 98, tells of coming to the United States by ship at age 5 and living in Mechanicville in the days when the trains still ran constantly.

Ninety-five-year-old Warren Foote and his friends drank themselves silly at the Union Hotel in Ballston Spa before heading off to war.

Parente, Foote and eight other Maplewood Manor nursing home residents tell their stories in a new booklet written by Galway resident Mary Cuffe Perez, “What We Keep.”

In some cases, it was the first time the seniors had shared their stories, according to Cuffe Perez, who interviewed and got to know 10 residents before writing up their stories and pairing them with black-and-white portraits taken by Galway High School students.

“People don’t ask us about our lives,” said Lillian Bills Derby, a former Galway resident. “They tell us about their lives, but they don’t ask us about ours.”

Some of the 10 residents will be present at a reading of their stories from 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Brookside Museum.

“What We Keep” started as a discussion Cuffe Perez wanted to have with elderly folks about which keepsakes they saved over the decades and brought with them to Maplewood, and what those objects represented in their lives.

But as she met with them last year and this year, she realized their stories weren’t so easily compartmentalized.

“I found that started to stifle them too much,” Cuffe Perez said.

The project morphed into an exploration of the less tangible things people keep — memories, songs, photos, values, wisdom and humor among them.

In the end, they have themselves.

“What we keep is everything that we become over a lifetime,” she said. “That’s what we keep, and that’s what’s of value.”

With little space of their own in the nursing home, many residents had to give up their favorite keepsakes.

One woman had to leave her home suddenly because of illness, and she was never able to go back. Her belongings were sold, and she doesn’t know what became of her mother’s wedding dress, which she kept for decades, lovingly folding fresh tissue paper around it annually to keep it nice, Cuffe Perez said.

Cuffe Perez wrote a two-page short story about each person from the interviews.

To do the project, she secured a grant from the Saratoga Program for Arts Funding, which is funded by the New York State Council on the Arts. She worked with Bills Derby, whom she knew through living in Galway and who identified other Maplewood residents to interview.

Student photos

Students from The Village Press, Galway High School’s student-run publishing company, photographed the residents and put together the booklet, which came off the presses a couple of weeks ago.

“It was quite a fun experience, because the kids hadn’t done anything like this before,” Cuffe Perez said, adding the teens were a big hit at the infirmary.

“Everybody was very excited to see all these kids, all this energy, coming into the nursing home.”

It was a different kind of writing experience for Cuffe Perez too.

“It was kind of a revelation to me. Maplewood isn’t exactly the kind of place where people hang out,” she said.

The Saratoga County-owned nursing home mostly gets negative attention these days, because of how much it costs the taxpayers. The county plans to sell the home to end its multimillion-dollar annual losses. Staff at the home and family members of some residents oppose selling it to a private company, saying salaries and the quality of care will fall under a for-profit outfit.

Cuffe Perez is glad to get the residents’ stories out in the public.

“By talking to people, they remembered things that they thought they’d forgotten,” she said. “I thought that’s a very good reason for people to always ask them about their lives.”

“What We Keep” will be available in the collection of local libraries and at Brookside Museum’s library.

Cuffe Perez has done two local projects previously: “Nothing by Name,” a novel in verse; and the Galway-based “Story Quilt” project.

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