Despite being separated by a wall of glass, the families of Petra Arroyo Mendez and Cassie Wilkes — residents at Health Central Park in Winter Garden — made their way to the facility to celebrate their birthdays.
Wednesday, March 13, was Petra Arroyo Mendez’s 101st birthday.
Normally, she would be surrounded by her entire family, which includes five children, 10 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great-grandchildren.
But this year, because of the coronavirus and the no-visitor policy at nursing homes, she and the family who could visit are separated by a large pane of glass.
As she sat inside — sporting her birthday crown and sash — daughters Felicita Cruz and Norma Perez smiled and waved to those sitting just on the other side of the window.
“First of all, it’s a big blessing having my mom all this time— 101 years? It’s a big blessing,” Cruz said. “It’s a little bit different than the way we celebrated before. … It’s hard on us, but also I notice it is hard for her because she hardly understands what’s going on. We always had the family over ... flying in just for her, and we couldn’t do that this time.”
A native of Ponce, Puerto Rico, Arroyo Mendez has been in Florida for 50 years and is well known around Health Central Park for her bright personality, Cruz said.
That charm shined during her 101st birthday celebration, even if it could only be seen through a tinted window and the iPads used to link up the family outside to Arroyo Mendez on the inside.
It was also a moment to reflect on the long life of a woman loved so dearly by her family, Cruz said. For Cruz, it’s the memories of her mother in the garden that have stood the test of time.
“She loves flowers,” Cruz said. “I remember her, when I was growing up, always in the garden planting and taking care of her flowers — that was her life. She loved to be in the garden all the time.”
It’s not exactly the birthday party Cruz was hoping to have with her mom, but given the circumstances, it was more than enough. However, she does wish she could have some real one-on-one time with her so she could pass on a simple message.
“That I love her, and I miss her,” Cruz said.
WILKES TURNS 102
Five days later, on Monday, May 18, a similar celebration took place for Cassie Wilkes and her family at the entrance of Health Central Park.
A large group of family members — including Cassie Wilkes’ son, Isaac Wilkes, and daughter, Betty Brown — were there to celebrate her 102nd birthday.
“They have put on a real nice display due to the circumstances,” Isaac Wilkes said. “We know what’s going on with the COVID-19, because down south, there are some nursing homes where people come with their kids, they can’t even bring them to the door to see them. I’m just happy for her to see 102 years old.”
Just like the party for Arroyo Mendez, Cassie Wilkes spoke with her family via iPads, and the smile that came across her face when folks kept showing up was a moment that brought warmth on a dreary day.
“I’m glad to see y’all,” said Cassie Wilkes with a big grin.
Cassie Wilkes — born in 1918 in Attapulgus, Georgia — spent much of her life working in tobacco fields and farming. It was hard work, but it put food on the table.
And that food she put on the table? It was the best thing you’d ever tasted, Isaac Wilkes said. Every day, she whipped up something for all three meals of the day.
“I can remember — when I was growing up — her cooking,” Isaac Wilkes said. “My job was I had to go out in the morning and pick the blackberries, and she would make something for dinner.”
“I remember the times when we would go to Sunday School,” Betty Brown said. “We’d have a table spread with everything — Momma cooked all of this stuff. Momma loved cooking.”
While Cassie Wilkes and her family continued to enjoy one another’s company on a cloudy Monday afternoon, Isaac Wilkes stepped back to take in what was happening in front of him.
It was a simple gesture by the people at Health Central Park to put on the party, but for the family, it was the creation of a memory that will last forever.
“This is something I’ll always remember,” Isaac Wilkes said. “Everybody here will always remember this.”