Anna Stivers was buried yesterday under crystal-clear skies, with a slight breeze rippling the green canvas canopy that sheltered the casket and brushing the small knot of mourners at the hillside cemetery in Suitland. Two priests said brief words, and the ceremony was over in minutes.
Many of the details of Anna Stivers' life are not known, but the outline is clear and stark: She spent 35 years, from hot-tempered adolescense to poignant middle age, at St. Elizabeths Hospital, the mental institution in Southeast Washington. After her release, she was unable to handle life's freedom and responsibilities and lived on Washington's streets until she stumbled into the care of a shelter for homeless women. She died a pauper on July 9 at the age of about 60, her body left unclaimed at the city morgue for more than a month.
In death, on that hillside at Washington National Cemetery, she was surrounded by the only family she had ever known. There were the women, some of them as unattached as Anna Stivers had been, with whom she had spent the last years of her life; and there were the priests, nuns and social workers who had made that semblance of family life possible and who had arranged her funeral when an in-law, who had come to identify the body, left without claiming it.
One of the nuns, Sister Gertrude Coffee, said later there were lessons to be learned from Anna Stivers' life and death:
"She gave us an exemplary life of simplicity that we need to look toward. Life is really simple. It's living, and breathing, and dying. And that's what Anna did."
Sister Gertrude lives in a convent in Baltimore but spends most of her time in Washington, working at the House of Ruth, the women's shelter that took Anna Stivers in. After the funeral she talked about Stivers' life.
"She wasn't much physically, you know. She was terribly overweight. In her last few months, she started saying that she wanted to go back to St. Elizabeths. She said they would cut her toenails for her there; you know, she couldn't bend over to do it herself. She said that, when she was there, she knew what time dinner would be. Everything was all on the same floor, so she didn't have to go up and down stairs. Everything was done for her."
Officials at St. Elizabeths declined to release any information yesterday about Anna Stivers' stay, but Sister Gertrude repeated what Anna had told her. She said she has verified that Anna spent many years at St. Elizabeths and officials there did acknowledge yesterday that they had records pertaining to her.
Anna Stivers told House of Ruth workers that her mother committed her to St. Elizabeths when she was 16 years old. They said she explained she had a fiery temper, and her mother, who also had emotional problems, couldn't tolerate her.
She spent the next 35 years, by her own count, at the institution. One House of Ruth worker, who once worked at St. Elizabeths, remembers Anna in earlier years as being thin and having flowing hair. She was released in 1974 after being deemed "worthy to move in community," in Sister Gertrude's phrase.
She came out with the intention of living with a relative, but did not fit in and within a month ended up on the streets, standing daily in soup lines for her only meals.It was in such a soup line that she met Veronica Maz, the founder of the House of Ruth, who took her in at a forerunner shelter caled Shalom House. By then she was in her 50s, already obese and with a weak hear.
"She literally had to be taught to cross the street," Sister Gertrude said. "She had to be taught everything. She had no idea of how to live for herself."
Maz, aided by Sister Gertrude and others, found her a furnished room around the corner from the Shalom shelter at Fourth and K streets NW, but Anna was not happy. She was not used to being alone, and told her new benefactors that there was "something about these walls" that she did not like. So eventually she went to stay at the House of Ruth itsef, a renovated brownstone at Fifth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE, where she shared an upstairs room with two other women.
On of those women was Aline Jennings, who had fallen on hard times after her husband died and who remembers Anna Stivers as "a beautiful person." Anna was white and Aline Jennings is black, but she says that "don't matter here." It was Jennings who took Anna on her regular visits to the doctor of for the heart condition that eventually killed her.
"She said she knew she was going to pass," Jennings recalled. "She said she didn't mind dying."
Sister Gertrude said that Anna Stivers had an infectious naivete and honesty. She remembered that once another resident came home wearing a pair of silver sandals. Anna wanted to have a pair, and asked if they were available in her large size. She gave the women $23 to buy her a pair, and when the woman could not find them large enough, she brought the money back. "And these are women from the streets," Sister Gertrude said.
Anna's health continued to fail, and in May it was arranged for her to live at another House of Ruth shelter where she would not have to climb so many stairs. She died peacefully on July 9.
The D.C. Medical Examiner's Office held her body while police sought relatives. Maz said a man, who claimed he was Anna Stivers' brother-in-law from somewhere near Chicago, showed up at the House of Ruth one day and said he was going to claim the body. But they never heard from him again.
With the financial help of the District government, the House of Ruth decided to hold the funeral. It began at 10 a.m. yesterday, a mass celebrated by the Rev. Francis Knott, pastor of St. Aloysius Church on North Capitol Street, and the Rev. Horace McKenna, an early supporter of the House of Ruth.
Afterwoard, a wake of sorts was held, with fried chicken and potato salad and coleslaw and sweet fruit punch, in the offices of the House of Ruth. The mood was not somber. "This is our first funeral," Maz said, but she and the others considered Anna Stivers a success.
"The whole point is that if people take care of other people, then they don't have to be homeless," Maz said. "All these women are not part of society's structure at all. But they can give love."