It is often the case that life gives with one hand and takes with the other. One thing life gave Gertie and Booker T. Mann 50 years ago is each other; more recently, one thing it has taken is Gertie’s health.
For the past five years, Gertie’s medical needs have required round-the-clock nursing care, needs far beyond what can reasonably be met at home, and so she’s been living at Williston Rehabilitation and Nursing Center where Booker, her husband of over 42 years, visits her every other day except for those times when he comes to see her every day. This makes Booker T. Mann a familiar face to both the residents and staff of WRNC.
But Booker’s face is more than familiar, it is a face that without even trying expresses warmth, attentiveness and wit. As he walks down the nursing home hallways, he is recognized with smiles and greetings from staffers, residents, even other visitors. “I talk to all of them,” he says. “They all know me.”
This is not a boast or a moment of self-congratulation, this is a simple statement of Booker T. Mann’s response to life in a nursing home. “If you see someone ‘down,’ remember it could be you. If you’ve got someone in a nursing home, you need to see about them.”
“Seeing about” someone in need is a significant part of the histories Booker and Gertie have lived. Booker is the oldest of eight brothers and sisters (all still living) who call him Second Dad. The kids were raised in Dunnellon, where their father cut the cross-ties that were used in the railroads.
When he was 13 and 14, to help provide for his brothers and sisters, Booker started going to school at night so he could work days in a sawmill where he made 50 cents an hour. (Because he was too young to collect it, his first paycheck was paid out to his mother.) Grandparents living in Polk County would come to visit every month and bring food for the family.
Life may have been hard and demanding much of the time, but Booker remembers pleasures, too. There was swimming, fishing, and hunting with kin, and Saturdays after getting their chores done, he and the other kids would ride their bicycles from Dunnellon to the movies in Ocala. “We had to be back before dark, and we did it!” he says with a laugh.
Booker is clearly grateful for what he calls “a good family background, a family that hung together.” He remembers his parents always said, “You can’t raise a person twice,”and that in matters of courtship and marriage, they advised, “If you can’t get along, get apart, but separate as friends not enemies.”
When Booker met and began dating Gertie in 1960, he was employed at Dixie Lily and she worked a job making crates for fruit shippers, a job she held for 39 years. In addition to her job, Gertie was also taking care of her ailing mother and raising the daughter of a cousin. For years, these responsibilities meant they only saw each other on weekends, and it was not until July 10, 1967 that Gertie and Booker were married.
When I asked what held them together for the years leading up to their marriage and in the years since, Booker said, “We always saw eye to eye. We could understand each other.” Their long and happy marriage has reinforced the further understanding that “husband and wife need to be as one. They should be able to talk out problems as grown people. Fighting is what kids do. You shouldn’t let jealousy get in your marriage.”
In 1969, after 11 years with Dixie Lily, Booker found a position with better benefits and spent the next 12 years operating a furnace for an Ocala charcoal manufacturer. Then, in 1982, he took a job as a mechanic for E –One, and over the next 25 years moved up the ladder from a worker making $3.75/hour to a crew leader to a supervisor making $23/hour. Gertie continued with her job making crates, and in the meantime, they brought up their son and daughter, who have since given them 9 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren. Meanwhile, the child Gertie raised so many years ago now comes to the nursing home to plait her hair.
Although Gertie is as alert and aware as the next person, Booker says that it sometimes takes her a while to get out what she’s going to say. She’s been sitting and listening and sometimes nodding as Booker and I have been talking, and as our conversation comes to an end, I ask her what has kept her strong. This question takes her no time at all to answer: “I love children and my husband.” She pauses, then adds with a little smile, “Everybody likes him.”
Williston Rehabilitation and Nursing Center is located at 300 NW 1st Avenue, behind Hardees, and is home to many wonderful people who enjoy visiting, playing games and making things, being escorted on walks around the neighborhood, listening to music and stories, basically all the things that most people most places like to do. By taking part in the life of WRNC, you enrich your own life as well as the lives of those you meet. To learn more about how you can be part of a good thing, please call Activities Director Penny Moore or Social Worker Carmen Wagner at Williston Rehab & Nursing Center at 352 528 3561.
Gertie and Booker T. Mann were photographed by Donna Mitchell, who also interviewed them and wrote this article. Donna is the Community Liaison for Williston Rehabilitation and Nursing Center as well as Parklands Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Gainesville; she also serves on the board of Friends Across the Ages (AcrossTheAges.org), a Gainesville organization whose volunteers make friends with people living in nursing homes.