Gift of gratitude brings familial love to mother of seven, grandmother to 14

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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 these visits."

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 notes."

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 them.

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."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016