Senior Portrait: Dorothy Vendrame
We are social beings, and the stretches of isolation can be challenging. For seniors who are at higher risk of COVID and may be facing limited mobility, even the recent reopenings do not offer the same opportunity to rejoin a distanced social life. Many do not have the same social outlets to keep them active and are having to find new means to keep busy. For some, they fortunately have good neighbors to help them through the process. Recently Holly Kane reached out to me about her 94-year-old neighbor, Dorothy Vendrame, a resident of Circle Drive for the past sixty years. After speaking with Dorothy on the phone, she asked if I would mind meeting in person. Having been sequestered to my studio for too long I agreed to my first in-person interview in about a year. I drove up to the Circle Drive home and entered through an open garage, walking by a table filled with puzzle pieces into the sun struck backyard. We sat masked around different corners of the pristine backyard dotted with polished driftwood furniture I later found out was made by her husband, Jimmy. Her neighbors, Maggie Cote and Julie Ringler, joined us for the conversation as we discussed Dorothy’s life and the neighborhood during quarantine.
Dorothy was born in Santa Barbara along with her two brothers and two sisters. Her father, originally from Nebraska, was a foreman at a local dairy until The Great Depression hit when he lost his job, and the family lost their home on Castillo Street near Cottage Hospital. He had fortunately studied to be a barber and they soon moved to a new house on Ortega Street where he started a barber shop attached to the side of the house. They lived there for quite a while as Dorothy and her siblings went to school. She attended many of the familiar local schools like McKinley Elementary School and Santa Barbara Junior High. Her father later became the caretaker of the Hammond estate in Montecito. Some of Dorothy’s siblings had already moved away by then but Dorothy lived there with her family, even eventually getting married on the property.
It was after graduating from Santa Barbara High School that Dorothy began working at Edison and worked there until marrying her husband James, or Jimmy. They originally met in a pool hall where she had been bowling before running into each other at East Beach. During the interview, at the neighbors’ request, Dorothy pulled out a charming photo of them cuddling on the beach soon after they met. Over the years, the outdoors and physical activities remained important in their life, paddleboarding, playing golf, and camping among their Californian travels. After going into the service, Jimmy held jobs as a gardener in Montecito and a water delivery service before becoming a radiator mechanic which he continued for the next thirty years. Dorothy tended to the home as she raised their three boys. She eventually began working as the secretary for the principal of Santa Barbara Junior High and continued there for over twenty years. They first lived near “the foot of the Riviera” on Haley Street when they married before moving to the Mesa for ten years. They moved into their current house on Circle Drive in the ‘sixties where they have lived ever since.
Over the years Dorothy and Jimmy remained actively social. They were avid dancers with friends and a dance club. Up until the pandemic, Dorothy had monthly lunches with a group of friends from junior high and regularly met with an Italian group. Dorothy has had a long love for puzzles and was in a puzzling group forever, even getting the neighbors into it over the past few years. Throughout her time on Circle Drive, Dorothy has become a local personality in the neighborhood. Many of the neighbors got to know Dorothy during her routine walks. She would walk with another neighbor named Dorothy, the pair being known in the neighborhood as “the two Dorothys.” Neighbors and families would say hi and catch up as the two of them walked by. Although Jimmy has now unfortunately passed, over the years he could also be seen around the community speaking and interacting with the neighbors. During the warm summer days Dorothy would offer neighborhood children ice cream and popsicles. If her garage door was open, then guests were welcome. In her sixty years living there, Dorothy has seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood, and of course the pandemic has led to some other big changes.
Since the pandemic Dorothy has been fortunate enough to have family close by with a granddaughter and extended family in the area but her various groups and social outlets could no longer meet. The neighbors rallied to make sure she did not feel too lonely. Now, an open garage door signals to her across the street neighbor Steve that she is okay. He would also do regular temperature checks on her. When Dorothy unfortunately contracted COVID this past year, the neighbors including Maggie, an RN of over forty years, kept a much closer eye on her (safely of course). Dorothy was able to recover from COVID without going to the hospital. She mentions that she still had too many puzzles to do. Dorothy, who will be 95 this June, remains strongly independent as she tends to her house. Although she does accept the occasional bunch of green bananas and help with her garbage cans.
In the beginning of the quarantine, the neighbors kept her company in the backyard from a safe distance. They started off slow by reading books aloud and listening to Dolly Parton podcasts. After making some COVID adjustments and moving the puzzle table into the open garage, they were able to start puzzling again, an important pastime for Dorothy. Their current puzzle, an arrangement of succulents, is a particularly hard one and they plan to have a celebratory glass of wine when finishing. As I leave the backyard, I walk back by the puzzle. Looking down at the clusters of pieces fitted together and groups of similar shades and textures, there is still work to do but with some communal help, a completed picture begins to take shape.