Pete Ferguson carries his mom into the CountryHouse on Tuesday afternoon.
There she is, caught in time, in shades of gray and black and white on the 16-inch-by-22-inch plywood canvas.
Her striped sweater, her cap of curling hair, her hand turning the pages of a picture book, a small child on either side.
For 14 years, Alida Ferguson lived with Alzheimer’s. She was 84 when she died in hospice care last month at the CountryHouse Residence for Memory Care.
Her son and her daughter, Felicia Gertken, came up with the idea of this portrait, a lasting tribute to a strong woman and to the people who cared so much for her in her last years.
“We wanted to give them something that captured the spirit of not only my mom, but the rich lives of all those residing at CountryHouse," Pete Ferguson said.
Alida had been a teacher for 40 years — in Los Angeles, where she grew up, for the Army in Germany, where she would meet her husband, Howard.
Then in Washington and Arizona and finally at Ruth Hill Elementary School in Lincoln, where she’d declared she wouldn’t retire before there was another African-American educator in the building.
Her obituary noted her many talents — piano, cello, racquetball, sewing, cooking.
It listed the events that changed the arc of her life — segregation, wars, the civil rights movement, Title IX, the election of the first African-American president of the United States.
It said this: The family and those who knew her well are comforted knowing that Alida Ferguson knows who Alida Ferguson is again.
His mom was a woman of will, Ferguson says.
The director of the care home on 84th Street agreed.
“You could see her independence through her disease,” Laura Thelen said. “You could tell she was a unique kind of woman.”
The woman known for her cooking skills — and her pecan pie — was still able to navigate a kitchen and she loved to entertain, Thelen said.
“She had a very caregiving heart. She helped make the snacks and pass them out.”
She kept the staff and her fellow residents “very much in check,” Thelen said.
If things got too loud, she let them know.
“You could see the teacher in her.”
* * *
The CountryHouse director likes to take pictures of the 35 residents who live at the big, homey building, set back from a busy east Lincoln thoroughfare.
She likes to capture their faces, moments in time when their disease seems far away and the person inside shines through.
On the day his mom died, Ferguson asked Thelen if she had any favorite images she could share.
A painting hung above Alida’s bed at CountryHouse, created by Ferguson’s daughter, Jaden — the grandmother and granddaughter bundled against the cold, holding hands as they marched down O Street at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rally and March.
Visitors and residents alike were drawn to the smiling woman and the little girl in the painting, and Ferguson and his sister decided a gift of art would suitably honor their mom, who had always appreciated art and dabbled in pastels and stencil work.
Thelen looked through her files for photos of Alida. There were so many it was hard to winnow them down.
Alida in her wheelchair at a high school gym, her son at her side, pointing up. Alida riding in a golf cart at Quarry Oaks Golf Course, admiring the fall colors.
Alida on the field at Memorial Stadium. Alida chopping vegetables in the kitchen.
Alida with a picture book, reading to small visitors to the CountryHouse.
Ferguson had an artist in mind. Jerome Ehrlich, a P.E. teacher at Belmont Elementary, where Jaden, now a high school senior, had gone to school.
When Jaden was still a Belmont student, Ehrlich had painted a portrait of Jackie Robinson and hung it in the school hallway, part of a project he called Inspire.
When the display ended, he gave it to the girl, whose Grandma Alida had told her the story of her own school days — baseball games on the radio and how the class would come to a standstill when Robinson came up to bat.
He was honored to paint Alida, said Ehrlich, who is regularly commissioned to paint portraits in his signature style of acrylic on plywood.
He’d long known about Ferguson’s mom; he knew of the work the son did with the Alzheimer’s Association, educating youth and adults about the disease.
Ferguson had shared with him how much his mom loved reading and how much she loved reading to her students.
Of all the photos Thelen had shared with him, Ferguson singled out the picture of his mother reading to share with the artist.
A powerful image, Ehrlich said. Looking at it, he could feel the kids soaking up the story.
“And then I started wondering what kind of books Pete liked to listen to with his mom.”
* * *
The latest numbers were released this week:
Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in America. Nearly 6 million Americans have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the numbers are projected to rise to 14 million by 2050.
Nearly 700 Nebraskans died of Alzheimer’s in 2017, and 34,000 Nebraskans over 65 are living with a disease that steals their memories and their independence and is always fatal.
Two out of three Alzheimer’s patients are female. African-Americans contract the disease at twice the rate of the Caucasian population.
Ferguson knows that.
He considered it when the family looked for a place for his mom to live, knowing that the increased incidence is not reflected in the faces of residents in memory care.
He asked questions about the cultural competency of the staff. Have they had other minority residents? How would they handle an inappropriate racial situation?
“Here is a woman who is African-American, and there are people who could not go to school with her.”
A son advocating for his mom, the way she had for him and his sister.
“You want them to have a quality of life that they have provided and sacrificed for you.”
* * *
The son presents the portrait to the CountryHouse director Tuesday afternoon.
The tall black man and the short white woman who made his mom feel at home.
You’re going to make me cry, Thelen says.
She stands and stares at Alida Ferguson.
A woman with Alzheimer’s who loved to dance and sing to the music of Motown and talked of going home to Los Angeles and cuddled visiting children on her lap.
A woman who chopped celery and red peppers in the communal kitchen and served afternoon snacks with a smile.
A woman who would run down the memory care unit hallways before her disease worsened and who always made it known when she was unhappy.
When he was growing up, his mother seemed to stand taller than her 5-foot-something frame, Ferguson says. And she taught her children to stand tall, too.
“She made sure we knew who we were and knew about our identity. Not only with us, but during the 40 years she was an educator.”
He remembers how hard it was in the beginning.
His mom forgetting to pay her bills, leaving her phone off the hook, getting lost on a routine car ride. How hard it was for her to lose her independence, the anger and sadness before the disease erased the pain.
Thelen and the CountryHouse staff were a blessing, Ferguson says.
“Even until her death, she and her staff provided an environment that gave my mom life.”
It’s quiet at the CountryHouse on Tuesday afternoon.
A resident comes to look at the painting Thelen holds in her hands.
That’s Alida, Thelen tells her. Remember Alida?
She was your roommate.
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