Surrounded by her children, grandchildren and a
great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Donaldson opened a manila
envelope handed to her by Emily Gerke. She slowly pulled out
a small towel with "Home is where our story begins" printed
on it in swirling cursive letters. As she unfolded it, more
messages appeared - all handwritten. Her eyes darted across
the fabric as Gerke explained to her what she was seeing.
"I sent this towel to all of your children," Gerke said.
"They each wrote you a message." Donaldson's eyes lit up as
she began to understand the meaning of her gift. She extended
her delicate arms to hold up the towel and looked up at Gerke
adoringly, "It's beautiful!"
Gerke, a recent graduate of Saint John Paul the Great
Catholic High School in Dumfries, spent her spring semester
visiting 90-year-old Elizabeth Donaldson at her residence at
the Sunrise Retirement Home in Arlington. The two are not
related, but they have formed a relationship that makes them
feel like family, Gerke said.
This relationship was spurred by an assignment in Gerke's
bioethics class, which was to "find someone who was sick,
elderly or just struggling, and befriend them for seven weeks
throughout the semester." The students were told to have at
least one interaction with their "person" every week, and to
plan activities to do with them. Gerke's activity was taking
Donaldson out to her favorite diner and talking about their
lives while they ate.
"She's so easy to talk to," Gerke said. "It's interesting to
see the certain things she remembers from so long ago."
Gerke wanted to give something to Donaldson that she could
enjoy forever. She thought a personalized towel with notes
from all of her children would be the perfect gift. "It would
be something that she can keep and have, and she could look
at it when she is feeling down," she said.
Gerke sent the cloth towel with an assortment of fabric
markers, a return envelope and stamps to each of Donaldson's
seven children. Only two of them live locally, and the rest
are scattered across the country in Florida, Illinois,
Missouri and Pennsylvania.
"(Her kids) live all over the place, so they don't always get
time to see her," Gerke said. "So by coming and visiting her,
I was able to give them a break."
Kathy Hankenson, one of Donaldson's daughters who lives in
Florida, said Gerke's visits meant a lot to her mother - who
treasures the company now more than ever.
"My mom is a widow, my dad died in 2008," Hankenson said. "So
she's been here on her own, and she really looks forward to
Donaldson was born in Washington, and met her husband while
attending George Washington University. She worked as a
secretary at the Arlington County courthouse.
The mother of seven is now a grandmother to 14, and a
great-grandmother to three.
Hankenson said the towel represents the "legacy" her mother
is leaving behind in all of them, and hopes it will be a
source of comfort to her. "I'm hoping on the nights when
she's feeling lonely, she'll go over and read those little
We often wait until it is too late to express our love and
gratitude, Hankenson said, so this towel is special in that
it communicates those feelings now, while Donaldson can enjoy
Gerke, who has lost three of her grandparents and lives far
from the fourth, said the time she spent with Donaldson has
given her a deep appreciation for the elderly. "They have a
lot to offer us," she said. "If you just go and spend time
with them, it not only benefits them, but it benefits us."