It was a simple question.
How do you like it here?
But suddenly, Shirley Anatriello dissolved into tears.
The two middle school children interviewing her froze.
“I lost my husband,” she said, tears streaking down her cheeks.
As the children struggled to find anything to say, she wiped at her tears frantically.
“No big deal,” the 76-year-old gasped. “I managed. I’m tough. Life goes on.”
Finally, 13-year-old Alexys Hurd said, “I’m sorry!”
Anatriello forced a smile.
Mont Pleasant Middle School students have been writing with residents at The Avenue nursing home all year, and on Tuesday they got to meet their penpals at the Altamont Avenue facility. But two of the students, Hurd and Damian Dixon, 14, were left alone: their penpals were away.
So they got to meet a resident who had signed up for the program, but had not been matched with a penpal.
The conversation went in unexpected directions.
“We were married 40 years,” Anatriello said of her husband Guy. “That’s FORTY. Two sons. Five grandchildren. Two of them went to college, too.”
The students leaned forward. Had she not gone to college?
Oh, no, she explained. In the 1950s, when she graduated from high school, she lived at home until she got married.
Then she raised her sons. Only after they had moved out did she consider working.
“I didn’t want to stay home,” she said. “Then, when I worked, I helped him. He wanted something? ‘Here, honey.’ He did the same for me.”
She learned shorthand and typing to work in an office. The students tried to understand what shorthand was, but her explanation left them confused.
So she assured them that their teachers surely knew it.
“Ask them. They’ll help you,” she said, adding that she had learned in high school.
The students politely didn’t mention that shorthand is no longer a required skill.
Instead, they wanted to know why she worked so hard in school when she wasn’t planning to go to college or get a job.
“Because I wanted to graduate,” she said. “My mom and dad worked hard. I wanted them to be proud.”
Then she asked them if their parents were still alive. Clearly confused, the students said yes.
“Both of them?” she asked. “You too?”
Both students nodded, eyes wide as they thought of living in a world in which parents might routinely die by the time their children were in their teens.
“That’s good,” she told them. “That’s good for you. I’m glad.”
She broke down a few myths — she had a washing machine as far back as she could remember, and always had one as an adult.
She only used a washboard once.
“I tried it once. It wasn’t that hard,” she said, adding that she tried it as an adult. “Because I wanted to see what it was like.”
Then she told them stories about her husband, who served in the Navy and later became a barber. She couldn’t remember many details, and some of the dates she recalled weren’t quite right, according to nurses.
The good times
But she remembered the good times.
“We went to Vegas — we used to gamble,” she said, recalling that her husband once won $3,500 on a slot machine.
“Then on weekends we’d go to Atlantic City. We’d go out to dinner,” she said. “And then he liked to play cards or the quarter machines. He enjoyed it.”
She liked the slot machines too.
“That was our life then,” she said. “It was fun.”
Now she doesn’t get much of a chance for that. She told the students that she loves the activities at the nursing home — particularly the jewelry she can win at bingo games — but the highlight was a trip to the Saratoga Casino and Raceway.
“We went two weeks ago,” she said. “We only played the penny machines so it wasn’t too exciting, but we went!”
Reach Gazette reporter Kathleen Moore at 395-3120 or email@example.com.