Moving OnDecember 18, 2020
Story by Christine Stephenson
Photos by Marlena Sloss
Viola Wagner felt the familiar warmth of the sun beaming through her old living room window and thought about all that had happened in the past year. Her daughter, Clare Raley, swatted at the wasps that gathered while the house sat empty.
Nov. 27 was the first time Viola was able to look out that window in a while. For 60 years, the Jasper woman peered out and watched the people and animals down below and the visible tip of the St. Joseph clock tower up above. This view was probably one of the things she’d missed the most.
Down through the field and past the line of trees, she can almost see her new home, Legacy Living Jasper, in the distance. She watched it being built while living in her home.
At the time, she knew she was getting older and would probably have to move into an assisted living facility eventually, but for some reason, she never imagined it being that one — probably because it seemed too expensive.
Viola and Clare, who drove up from Louisville to see her mom, just stopped by the house to meet with some Herald staffers. The house was sold but hadn’t closed yet, and Viola likely wouldn’t be there whenever it did. So this time may have been one of her last chances to see it.
She ambled around the living room, with its green floors and orange accented curtains, and stopped at a wooden chest nestled in the corner.
“I’m going to be buried in this one day,” she said offhandedly.
She glanced over at where maps used to hang near the dining area, which her family used to point out places that were on the news at the time. She brushed past the swinger organ, the one no one in her family really knew how to play but all the kids would tinker with anyway.
She walked past the entrance to the downstairs area, where she used to operate a hair salon and a health foods store. The salon room was empty but still had the large, quintessential mirrors on the walls. Right outside the downstairs entrance — the one customers would use — was the outline of a mailbox, where customers or neighbors would stop by and leave notes for her.
Every part of the house held its own memory.
Viola isn’t an emotional person, at least not on the surface. She talks about her memories openly but rarely expresses how those memories make her feel. This house is where she built her life, but it’s also just that — a house. You miss things, but then you move on.
“After a while, you make do,” she said.
When Viola left her home and moved into Legacy about a year ago, she didn’t know how different her life would be now.
After one last look, Viola and Clare pile back into the car and head back to Legacy. Viola doesn’t know at the time that she’ll be on lockdown for the better part of the rest of the year.
In November 2019, Viola’s house flooded. At the time, she was in the hospital after a fall, and while she was in the hospital she was found to have a liver infection. From Nov. 14 to Dec. 26, she was either in the hospital or at Cathedral Health Care Center in Jasper.
In general, Viola is a healthy person, especially considering she’s 88. But she’s also had hip injuries and other medical problems that come with age, as well.
“I’m kind of wired together,” she said.
After the fall, Viola knew she couldn’t go back to living alone. If her neighbors, the Jergers, didn’t help her that day, she doesn’t know how long she would have been lying on the ground. She moved into Legacy in December 2019.
In 1981, Viola watched the Eternal World Television Network for the first time. EWTN is a global cable network that provides around-the-clock Catholic programming.
She saw a nun named Mother Angelica, the founder of EWTN, on the screen. She’d never seen a nun on TV like that before, one that was in charge and doing all of the speaking. Since then, the network has changed her life — it taught her how to live the Catholic faith, she said.
Since then, Viola was inspired to travel on pilgrimages throughout the world. She’s been to Ireland, France, Italy, Mexico and Venezuela to visit different holy lands.
“It sort of helps to make the scripture come alive,” she said.
She traveled a lot in general, too. She and her husband, Joseph M. Wagner, drove their camper across the country several times, whether to visit a friend in California, her sister in Texas or niece in Washington. They traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and they visited their son in Spain while he was abroad for a semester. They traveled somewhere every year, at times with their four children. Joseph passed away in 2018.
Now, whenever Viola finds new places she wants to visit, she makes a list and sends it to her son, Blaise, and tells him to learn everything he can about the places before he visits.
“I tell him, ‘Well, I didn’t have time to go, so now you have to,’” she said.
Before COVID-19 — or at least before it got so bad that everyone was confined to their rooms — Viola was a firecracker at Legacy. She befriended many residents and kept tabs on even more. Sometimes, while everyone sat at breakfast, she’d pretend to read the newspaper so she could eavesdrop on other residents’ conversations.
“They have a hard time keeping track of me,” she said of the Legacy staff.
She gave tours of the facility to prospective residents. She played bingo sometimes but didn’t like to do some of the other activities that felt too nursing home-ish. Rather, she prefers just regular old reading to stay sharp — her room is filled with at least a dozen books, mostly religious, including the Navarre Bible complete set.
Viola is an avid churchgoer, but because of the pandemic she hasn’t been in a while. She used to love attending a prayer group when she was younger, but now most of the members are deceased, anyway.
“That’s what you get for being old,” she said with a laugh.
Now she usually just prays rosaries on her own, sometimes following along with those presented on EWTN.
On Dec. 14, Viola discovered some in the facility tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, everyone has been confined to their rooms with the doors closed. Now, Viola eats her meals alone and calls her friends at the living center to check up on them. The only people she’s seen in person are those who come to take her temperature and blood pressure.
Despite the conditions, she still enjoys living at the center. She has friends and is well taken care of. It’s just circumstances that everyone has to live with these days, to some extent.
“I can’t think of any place that would be better than this,” she said.
Due to the pandemic, Viola didn’t visit with family over Thanksgiving. If she still lived in her house, she might try to have a few over for Christmas. But even if Legacy wasn’t on lockdown, there’s no place for anyone to stay, and it probably wouldn’t be safe anyway. So she’ll probably spend Christmas alone, too.
Mother Angelica died in 2016. But whenever Viola would watch her on EWTN, she admired how strong and feisty she was. She would tell other producers that she can do whatever she wants because she’s the founder, Viola said.
Viola tries to be like her, to be strong, too.
She’ll just have to make do, she says.