In a small, yellow and white cottage behind her daughter’s house in North Austin, 85-year-old Eloise Pelletier and her rat terrier mix Rocco have been under strict quarantine since early March.
“We’re holding up. It’s getting long for us, but really and truly, we’re grateful too. You know, the sun shines and it rains,” Eloise says. “And on the sunshine days, I can go pull a few weeds in the garden.”
Her daughter, Del Garcia, used to travel frequently for work, but now she’s homebound due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s been doing a lot of work in the garden too, but she and Eloise take turns in order to keep a safe distance from one another. Eloise had a heart catheterization not long ago, which, combined with her age, puts her at high risk for serious complications if she were to contract the virus. Based on advice from her doctor and daughter, Eloise tries to be very careful.
“I don’t go out when she’s out there,” Eloise says. “She comes and goes, and she’ll run over and say, ‘How are you, Mom?’ And, you know, we’re hollering out in the yard.”
While Del makes trips to the store to get them needed supplies, Eloise is also a client of Meals on Wheels of Central Texas. Prior to the pandemic, she regularly received prepared, plated meals to eat or freeze for later. Now, she says, they’re bringing her 10 days worth of canned food and other shelf-stable staples instead.
“Like, right now, I have beans and franks and a beef stew. I’ll probably have the beef stew today,” she said. “And I just think it’s great. I hope that folks understand how great it is for those of us who are getting it.”
Eloise hasn’t left the property in weeks, and says she’s adjusting to a life of relative isolation. Besides yelling to each other from across the yard, she and her daughter communicate by talking on the phone and through the cottage’s front door. Pelletier also has a son in El Paso, and they talk on the phone often.
“We’re sports buffs, he and I,” she says. “Nobody else knows about the draft or anything like that, so we like to talk about that.”
Eloise turns 86 in June, but says she’s never experienced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Years ago, in my other life, I was a nurse and a nurse practitioner in California, and I’ve seen some things,” Eloise says. “But not like this. This is really horrible. And I’m so old that my grandparents were killed in the flu epidemic of 1918. Both of them, when my mother was a baby.”
Born at home in El Paso, Texas, in 1934, Eloise raised her daughter and son before going back to school to study for a master’s degree in public health at the University of California at Berkeley. That’s where she met her second husband, a Navy veteran earning his bachelor’s degree. For years after they were married, his affectionate nickname for his wife was “Old Girl.”
Eloise worked in healthcare for more than 40 years, first as a nurse, then as a nurse practitioner, and finally as an administrator, before retiring in 2000. Soon after, her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When it became clear there was nothing more doctors could do to treat him, they decided to move to Austin, to live with Del.
“My husband wanted to die at home,” Eloise said. “So we came down here. He did die two months later, and then I just stayed.”
A few years after that, Del had the backyard cottage built to give Eloise more independence. Eventually, she would gain a four-legged housemate — her beloved Rocco — to keep her company.
“When I was a kid, I always had a pet,” Eloise says. “Everybody used to be horrified, cause I’d let the dog share my popsicle.”
Eloise brought her 14-year-old dog, Stanny, to Austin when they moved from California, but he died of old age not long after her husband passed away. For years, Eloise said she wasn’t ready for a new dog, but then one of her daughter’s co-workers found a puppy that had been abandoned under someone’s porch.
“But she couldn’t keep him, so my daughter brought him home to me. And that was Rocco,” Eloise said. “He really is my companion.”
Since the pandemic arrived, Rocco’s companionship has become even more valuable. Eloise misses opportunities to socialize, like going to weekly senior group meetings and Sunday mass at St. Louis King of France Catholic Church, but she has found a new way to practice her faith.
“I have to go to the other room, and my daughter puts on gloves and a mask and she sets up her computer on my table, so I can watch the church services here on Sunday,” Eloise says. “And then she comes and takes her computer away and that’s it.”
One thing that remains pretty steady is her weekly ritual with the Sunday edition of the Austin American-Statesman, except now she wears gloves to flip through the pages.
“It’s the real paper, you know, the paper paper. And I really enjoy it, but this past Sunday there were two pages of obituaries and everybody was in their eighties,” Eloise says. “So, I thought, ‘Well, Old Girl, look at the news.’”
Until the pandemic restrictions are lifted, Eloise says she’ll be staying home and doing her best to pass the time comfortably.
“I get up and feed the dog, I make my bed. I have some health and hygiene things I do for myself. Then I have to set up my breakfast and do the dishes, and then I try to get outside with the dog,” she says. “I’ve always told my friends, ‘It’s a heck of a job taking care of an old lady.’”