By Amaris Castillo
Anna Neofotistos keeps her promise from behind the counter at Pete’s Grain Company. Her mother, Angella, sits back on a recliner with her eyes closed. Sun pours into the cramped space, onto a row of bird feeders and old family photos that hang above the frail woman. The air is thick and smells of dry pet food and dog treats.
“Here, sip some tea,” Anna says to her mother. “Is it good?”
Angella nods her head yes. With her eyes still clamped shut, she quickly changes her mind. No.
“It’s no good?” Anna asks. “Well, try a little more.”
She gently tilts a green cup of chamomile tea toward her mother’s mouth.
“Anna!” cries Angella. She doesn’t say much else since suffering a brain bleed from a recent fall.
“Ma, here, sip some more,” Anna says. “I had some. Have some more. It’ll help your belly.”
The Neofotistos’ third-generation business on Hampson Street is open, but Anna, 49, must first look after her mother. She and her brother, Louie, 56, have cared for their parents for over a decade, without respite.
Their days are long and grueling. Anna’s responsibilities mash together as she struggles to tend to customers, suppliers, the phone, her mother, who has diabetes, and a host of other issues.
Louie spends a lot of time outdoors, delivering firewood and mulch, and baling hay from people’s yards that is later sold at Pete’s Grain.
Angella is kept behind the counter while her children work, like her ailing husband, Steve, who died in late June of pneumonia pleurisy.
Twenty years ago, Anna and Louie promised their parents they would never place them in a nursing home. Their word has followed them through an endless stream of medical appointments, health scares, their late father’s prostate cancer and sleepless nights.
Anna says she can’t ever break this promise.
“I can’t do it,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
It is lunchtime, shortly after noon.
Louie bends forward to lift Angella into an upright position on the recliner. She cries out. He returns later with a sandwich and sits on a bed nestled between a glass-paned wall and a counter cluttered with medications and vitamins.
Anna drags a table up to her mother’s knees so she can eat egg-lemon soup they’d ordered from a pizza place nearby. Anna takes a sip to make sure it’s not too hot. She lines her mother’s sweater collar with a makeshift bib made of toilet paper. Anna has an adult bib somewhere, but no time to look.
Anna asks her mother if her headache is getting better. No response. Angella looks down at her soup and takes in her first spoonful.
“Ma,” Anna says a bit louder. “Is your headache getting better?”
Angella glances up now and slowly shakes her head no.
Angella turns down oyster crackers, so Anna resumes work. She has until 1 p.m. to place the day’s cat-food and dog-food orders. She sits down at her desk a few feet from her mother and begins poring over a stack of papers and jotting down what she needs.
Through the years, Pete’s Grain has evolved from the farm-grain industry into a healthy pet-food market for dogs and cats.
But with their father gone, the weight rests on Anna and Louie’s shoulders. Both Anna and Louie say he was an honorable businessman — kind, hard-working and generous to a fault.
“My dad was everything to me,” Louie says. “He gave me life. He gave me opportunity. He taught me everything that I know.”
Soon, a couple walks in for a bale of hay. Anna is back on her feet. She talks to them for a few minutes and runs their card in silence.
“Anna!” Angella yells, her voice puncturing the room.
“Anna!” she cries again. Angella’s eyes widen and she looks around for her daughter, who is barely a yard away.
Anna pauses the transaction and turns to her mother. She rubs Angella’s hand to comfort her.
Throughout the day, there would be more interruptions like this.
Anna has had to stay at Pete’s Grain longer than expected today because Louie was out cutting hay. It’s past 8:30. She could close up and walk her mother to the car by herself, but it’s much more difficult.
While she waits, Anna sweeps the entrance hallway and gathers her things. Exhaustion is written all over her face, and she still needs to settle her mother in for their nightly routine when they get home.
Louie enters the store to pick up his mother. He holds onto her arms.
“Watch her shoulder,” Anna tells him.
“I know,” Louie responds, passing the front counter. “Come on. Big steps, then you’re going to step down.”
Angella’s legs wobble.
“I got you,” her son tells her. “Step down.”
They walk into the night slowly, past the screen door on which hangs a sympathy wreath in memory of Steve. The white and purple daisies have wilted, but no one has the heart to take it down just yet.
“I’m more motivated than ever to keep my dad’s legacy alive by keeping his business going,” Louie later says. “I’m thankful that I still got my mother.”
Mother and son make their way to the car, as Anna closes the store.
Louie cautions Angella to watch her head and helps her into the front passenger seat. She grips onto the grab handle and stares ahead blankly.
Louie peers in the car to make sure she’s OK and closes the door carefully. He lets out a deep sigh.
Tomorrow is a new day.
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.