Keith Tait urges Lonnie to smile for a picture as their three sons, Tom, Bruce and Steve stand in the background. Daily Times Herald photo by Paige Godden
Keith Tait urges Lonnie to smile for a picture as their three sons, Tom, Bruce and Steve stand in the background. Daily Times Herald photo by Paige Godden
Friday, August 24, 2012

Sixty years and one week ago, Keith Tait married the only woman he’s ever wanted to spend the rest of his life with.

Keith met Lonnie while working at a Hormel Foods factory in Austin, Minn., in 1951.

He priced hogs, and she worked in the office. Keith saw Lonnie at a party one night and had to ask her out.

They went to a movie, “A Street Car Named Desire.”

After their first date, Keith was too nervous to ask her to go steady. But she asked him.

“She said I don’t like to share things,” Keith laughed. “And I don’t want to share you either.”

Keith, now 86 and sitting in an oversized tan recliner in his living room at SunnyBrook Assisted Living of Carroll, remembered the moment fondly.

But Lonnie can’t remember any of it. Alzheimer’s disease has stolen that memory and so many others. Lonnie doesn’t often recognize Keith or her children or grandchildren.

She needs round-the-clock help with even the simplest daily tasks. She needs help to live. And to love.

“She’s still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Keith smiled.

Half of the Taits’ memories, gone

Lonnie is among about 5.2 million Americans ages 65 and older who suffer from the disease. It affects twice as many women as it does men, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Lonnie’s brain cells have trouble communicating and die. The disease is fatal.

Lonnie can’t give a glimpse into her life story, so Keith talked about his own.

He was born in Grimes and graduated high school there and joined the U.S. Army in 1944.

He served in the Pacific Ocean in World War II and was in the battle of Okinawa, Japan. It was a bloody battle. One of the bloodiest the country has ever waged. It makes him cry, but he tells himself that the government had to end the war.

He served until 1946 and missed the big welcome-home parade.

After he discharged from the Army he attended Iowa State University with money from the federal government. Keith graduated in 1951 and took that job at Hormel.

He met a girl at a party, and they went to a movie, and she asked him out.

Keith and Lonnie were dating for about a year and a half before they married.

The proposal was simple. After another date, he parked his car in front of her mother’s house.

“She was getting out of the car, and I said, ‘Hold on a second, I’ve got something to ask you,’” Keith said.

She said “yes” and ran into her house to tell her mother.

They married in August 1952.

Keith said he was excited to be wed. He wasn’t nervous — she was the only one he’d ever wanted to spend his life with.

After they were married, Lonnie quit working at Hormel. The couple had three sons; Steven, Bruce and Tom, who is now a city councilman in Carroll.

Keith stayed with Hormel for more than 35 years, and the family moved from Austin to Pella to Ottumwa. Keith and Lonnie later settled in Mesa, Ariz.

A new home for Lonnie

It wasn’t until last year that the Taits moved back to Carroll.

Keith said he needed to find a home for Lonnie because he could barely look after himself.

Keith worried she’d get out of bed at night and wander off. For a time, Lonnie didn’t remember Keith. He fell and hit his head and was gone from her for eight weeks.

Lonnie wandered around a nursing home saying, “Papa is gone. Papa is gone.”

He said they chose Carroll because their son Tom lives here. The other boys live in Minneapolis and Colorado, where it’s too cold or too far above sea level.

Lonnie moved into the memory support unit in May 2011 after her Alzheimer’s had almost fully taken over her mind.

Keith said their 60 years of marriage went quick. Faster than he could imagine.

But life has slowed down since he moved into SunnyBrook.

He still goes and sees her a couple of times a day.

He used to venture down to her room at least four times a day, but now his body can’t walk that far as often.

On a recent day, Keith said he misses all of the parties they used to attend. And their vacations — on cruise ships to Alaska and Hawaii.

But, enough reminiscing. A nurse said Lonnie was out and about in Keith’s end of the building, so it was time for him to go see her.

He stood up from his comfy chair, grabbed his walker and began his way down the hall.

A family celebration

One week ago, the Taits celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

Keith was surprised by how many people came. Two of Lonnie’s sisters, the couple’s sons and two grandchildren.

A worker wheeled Lonnie into SunnyBrook’s party room. She sipped a Diet Coke and was humming a tune — perhaps she remembers it.

One of her sons said music was always her passion. She loved living in Austin because she was able to see the big bands at the time.

Keith passed around the wedding photos he keeps in a little white book.

“Look at that beautiful girl,” Keith pointed at a photo.

He tried to get her to remember the photos.

He asked her to talk to her granddaughter Lindsey in an online video chat.

He reminded her to smile for the pictures, and to stop drinking so much Diet Coke.

She just kept humming.