The other day Sherry Vaughan was thinking about a twice-baked potato for supper and decided to make one for her 96-year-old neighbor in Grovemont.
Vaughan is a member of a very small satellite of people who hover around Mozelle Smith, a spry woman who exasperates her caregivers when she goes outside to check her mail without her cane. Mrs. Smith lives near the Swannanoa Library, next to Vaughan and near a handful of others who make sure she gets to the grocery store and to her doctor appointments.
“One of us is there all the time,” neighbor Lynda Stamey said. “If she wakes up at 3 in the morning, she’ll call one of us. If she hears a noise, we’ll go flying. If she’s ill, one of us will spend the entire night with her. She’s basically taken care of by a lot of people that love her.”
On this particular cool-ish winter evening last week, Vaughan took the steaming potatoes next door into Mrs. Smith’s house. “She said, ‘sit down and spend some time with me,’” Vaughan said of Mrs. Smith. They sat at her kitchen table and chatted while they ate.
“I’ve got a lot of people helping me,” Mrs. Smith said on her sunny back porch recently. “It feels good. You don’t feel like you’re all alone, especially when things get too rough. And they get too rough sometimes.”
Mrs. Smith is among the 12,323 people 65 and older who lived alone in Buncombe County in 2015, according to Buncombe County Council on Aging statistics that indicate that more than one in four elderly residents live by themselves.
The last of 12 brothers and sisters, Mrs. Smith has a nephew in Florida but no family nearby. Watching over her are Stamey, who was a young girl when the Smiths moved next door, and Vaughan, who moved next door three years ago. Randy Martin, who was the Smiths’ late son’s best friend, helps keep up her house. Bob Walsh, who moved to the neighborhood from New Jersey 13 years ago, picks up her yard, rolling over to cut it after he cuts his own. He gathers up limbs that have fallen and spruces the place up.
“I’ve got her yard looking pretty nice,” he said last week. “She’s a very nice lady. The other day she saw me and said ‘I haven’t seen you in a while,’ and I said ‘yeah, it’s been about three days.’ She deserves all the help she can get. I feel good doing what I do for her. It makes me feel good.”
Stamey is first on the First Alert list of people to call (Vaughan is second). Martin, who also lives near Mrs. Smith, is the third person First Alert calls when Mrs. Smith rings. Vaughan often shares her meals with Smith and brings her flowers. She takes her shopping and to church. Stamey picks up her prescription for her.
Stamey, 74, was a child when the Smiths built their house next to her parents’, in 1950. Mrs. Smith worked at Beacon Manufacturing, handling insurance benefits for employees. Her husband Ted was a supervisor there. Mrs. Smith would give Stamey and the other children treats when they were in her yard. The two families remained close even after Stamey got married and moved to Texas. When she and her husband came back to visit her parents, her husband would go next door to help with the Smiths’ yard work.
Stamey, who moved back home, started looking in on Mrs. Smith regularly when Mrs. Smith’s son Kevin got sick. Kevin, a 58-year-old former law enforcement officer, truck driver and farmer, had cancer. Stamey took Kevin, who’d she known for decades, to his chemotherapy sessions. When he went into the hospital in September 2015, she was there as much for his mother as for Kevin. Mrs. Smith had been there for two weeks the night Stamey suggested they go home so that Mrs. Smith could get some sleep.
“I just felt the need to get her out of the (hospital) room,” Stamey said. “I honestly don’t think he wanted to die with his mother there. He died that morning about 2 a.m. I made all the arrangements for her.
“She’s like a second mama to me right now. That’s how I feel about her,” Stamey said. Most days, Stamey heads next door about 10 in the morning and doesn’t leave until nighttime, when Mrs. Smith goes to sleep with Fuzzy, the cat that Kevin brought home.
Vaughan, a nanny and environmental activist, also loves Smith “like my mother,” she said. “I just want to listen and have her tell me about her life so I can live my life like she does. She finds herself going back to the days she loves so much,” such as when she met Ted and how the kids on the bus would let her sit in front, near where he was sitting in the driver’s seat. “She goes back to the days they went dancing,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan met Smith soon after Vaughan moved into her home in Grovemont. She walked up to Smith’s door, knocked and introduced herself. “She was so sweet and friendly,” Vaughan said of “Amazing Mozelle,” as she calls her. “She walked into the yard with me and told me to pick a bouquet of daffodils.”
Mrs. Smith walks in the street in front of her house twice a day. She cooks for herself, eats well, loves fresh food (she gardened for many years) and cleans up the kitchen when she’s through, Vaughan said. She lugs heavy water containers outside to water the birds she loves to watch.
“She does use a cane, but there are times she forgets and goes out to get the mail without her cane, in the snow,” Vaughan said. “I say, ‘Mozelle!’”
One of the happiest moments in Vaughan’s life happened in November at her 70th birthday dance party when she and Smith were dancing on Vaughan’s back porch. “I was smiling, and she was smiling,” Vaughan said.
Stamey talks to Mrs. Smith’s nephew in Florida quite a bit. He seems content to let the neighbors watch over his aunt, which Stamey does, often until bedtime. They’ll spend hours on the sunny back porch putting together puzzles, one of Mrs. Smith’s favorite activities.
Without her friends, “I’d have to hire someone to stay with me,” Mrs. Smith said. “And I don’t like that. I want to do my own thing. If I make a bed this way, I want it made that way.”
Sometimes she gets a little forgetful, Stamey said. “I went down there the other night and she had the table set for her husband and Kevin. I said, ‘remember honey, remember they’re not here. I’ll put these plates up and you and I’ll just eat.’ Sometimes she goes to the door and calls to her dog that’s been gone for years and years.
“I know that she’ll have to go to a home soon,” Stamey said. “But I’m going to postpone it for as long as I can. And I’ll find the right place that she likes. She’s said, ‘what are we going to do with all these thing we have?’ And I said, ‘we’re not going to touch a thing until you’re gone.’ There’s no sense in her being sad and her things sold while she’s there. That’s just unnecessary.”