It might have been Althea Lethbridge’s 100th birthday Friday, but her family already is planning for the future.
That’s why the special birthday shirt her daughter, Longview resident Bonnie Hull, presented her says, “Made in 1920,” and not something like “I’m 100 today.”
“You can wear it until you’re 107,” Hull said.
The shirt was part of a special birthday bash planned around COVID-19 restrictions in place for nursing home residents.
Hull said her parents, Althea and and Brad Lethbridge, lived in New Jersey, where she grew up, until about five years ago, when they moved into assisted living at Arabella of Longview, so they could be near to their only daughter. (The couple also has three sons, nine grandchildren and a dozen great-grandchildren.)
They lived there until earlier this year, when Brad’s declining health necessitated their move to Haven Care Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. He died in March (not of COVID-19) as concerns about the novel coronavirus led to requirements for nursing homes to restrict visitors. No direct visitations have been allowed until just recently, but still with restrictions.
In fact, Hull had her first visit in the same room as her mother since March on Friday morning, as preparations began for the party that evening.
“I almost cried (when I found out I’d get to visit in the same room with her). I did cry,” Hull said.
Hull said the Haven Care staff has been wonderful, helping arrange ways for Lethbridge and Hull to speak using an intercom system through the window, for instance. They were leaving that system in place for the party Friday night so family members and friends of Hull’s who were attending could speak to Lethbridge during the party.
“She can feel like she’s a part of our party, even though she’s still at the window,” Hull said. “I’m so grateful she has a window.”
She wishes there could have been a “big splash” party somewhere that her mother could participate in.
“COVID’s been really, really, hard on people, hardest on the group we’re trying to protect the most,” Hull said. “I know that’s a big issue people talk about. I appreciate the fact that Haven Care is keeping my mom safe. At same time — and this is not their fault — isolation is a killer.”
Her mother does get depressed, she said, so they looked for a way to celebrate her birthday in a special way.
“We’re doing it because she’s 100. She deserves a huge celebration at 100,” Hull said. “We’re doing it this way to celebrate it the best we can.”
Before the party ever started, one of Lethbridge’s four children sent her 100 roses of all colors in a giant arrangement that could be seen through the window to her room
“There’s no room for her in the room,” Hull said, laughing, as she spoke to her mother through the window, after their in-person visit. The flowers filled up the background behind her mother’s chair
She and her husband would have celebrated their 72nd anniversary on Oct. 9.
“He’s been with me all along. He shouldn’t have gone when he did,” Lethbridge said, adding that she sometimes prays, “Why did you take him so soon?”
Hull said her mother is sometimes able to better remember years past than what has happened in recent years. One of those old memories involves a military plane that crashed into the Empire State Building in New York City when she was working there in 1945.
The History Channel website says the B-25 Mitchell bomber with two pilots and one passenger was flying from Massachusetts to LaGuardia Airport in New York. The fog was bad that morning, though, and air traffic controllers redirected the plane to the Newark Airport, taking the plane through New York City instead.
The crew had been warned that the Empire State Building wasn’t visible, so the plane was flying slow and low when it had to turn to avoid the Chrysler Building and instead hit the Empire State Building near the 79th floor.
It was a Saturday, but Lethbridge said she was working a half-day at the time. The crash killed the people on the plane and 11 people in the building who were working for the War Relief Services department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference.
Lethbridge was on the 70th floor, and Hull said her mom has recalled over the years that the lights went out. The elevator wasn’t working, and she didn’t know where the stairs were. Someone, Lethbridge never knew who, took her hand and led her to safety. She always thought that was God helping her that day, Hull said.
Lethbridge’s birthday celebration Friday was complete with her favorite pie — lemon meringue — that one of Hull’s friends baked. Hull prepared a tiered cake for the party goers. Music from the 1940s played in the background.
For Hull, ending their visits is difficult, because Lethbridge doesn’t want her to leave, so her daughter always closes with prayer.
“That’s been really sweet. She always says, ‘Thank you so much for praying for me. I pray for you, too,’ “ and Hull reminds her to share that love with her caregivers at Haven Care. “I try to focus her a little bit on what her purpose still is.”