They are roommates, prone to the occasional spats that erupt when two people live in close proximity to each other. And they are sisters, united by genes and memories tugging back more than 80 years.
Both facts matter equally within the small space that Thelma Wines and Margaret Wootten share, a downstairs corner room at Manor Care nursing home in Silver Spring. Bland but not unpleasant, it probably will be the women's final address.
Each has her own television (the two sets are positioned almost side by side) because Thelma likes watching Lawrence Welk and Margaret prefers soaps and "The Price Is Right." Each harbors her own candy drawer because Thelma enjoys Cadbury chocolate while Margaret (who has diabetes) must stick to sugar-free treats.
But the fading photos on the walls illustrate the common markers of their lives--the dapper man Margaret still calls Pop, the demure-looking woman who was Mother, the modest Methodist church they attended while growing up.
"We get along all right," Thelma said, although she allows that things "get a little rough once in a while." Specifically, there has been laundry thrown. The sisters, long and lanky, both grin. "Nobody ever got hurt with laundry," Thelma scoffed.
This seems a fitting epilogue to a lifetime of togetherness forced more by circumstances than choice. Margaret, now 87, is the older by a year, but because she once was deemed retarded and uneducable, someone always has taken care of her. As a 1998 Washington Post story on the sisters detailed, initially it was her parents on the family farm in Burtonsville. Later it was Thelma, in the house her first husband built on that same land.
Of late, their roles have reversed. Not that Margaret's in charge of Thelma, but as the stronger sister--the one who needs a walker instead of a wheelchair to get around--she's suddenly setting the pace. Off to bingo. Off to arts and crafts. Off to get her hair done and nails painted.
Thelma must work to keep up.
"I just think they belong together, especially now," said Stephanie Renn, a longtime neighbor who visits several times a month. "There's no other family left."
For a while, with medical bills running high and the meager bank account from a monthly Social Security check running low, a far different ending loomed. The pair had their small and increasingly dilapidated house, though thanks to a much-regretted decision a decade earlier to deed the property to the Seventh-day Adventist church across the street, they no longer had access to the equity in it. The fear was that they'd be forced to move and, in the process, be separated permanently.
The church only agreed to return the deed at the eleventh hour last year. Yet that allowed the sisters to borrow against the property's value to cover their expenses for nearly 14 more months, including a day program that provided Margaret her first "schooling" since about 1918.
Lisa Becraft, another neighbor who is the sisters' tenacious protector and holds power of attorney, used part of the money to surprise Thelma and Margaret with their first new clothes in decades--everything from socks to underwear to coats. "Everything they had was threadbare," she said.
Becraft also dressed up the house with new drapes and, as required by the sisters' lender, tackled such basics as the leaking roof, collapsing chimney, peeling paint and decaying basement. Margaret was so happy, according to Becraft, "she bawled for three days: 'My home has never looked this good!' "
The cash infusion began to run out this spring. By then, deteriorating health meant Thelma already was at Manor Care. It seemed natural that Margaret would join her, and three days before their house sold in June she did. Not as roomies, however. In fact, the two were on different floors.
But when Margaret began clashing with the other woman in her room, the solution was obvious. "I said, 'Just put them together,' " Becraft recounted with affectionate frustration. "They're getting used to it. They're back to their old habits of sitting together to watch TV."
Only one set was blaring when Becraft and Renn stopped by last week. "Hi, girls," Becraft called out as Renn delivered kisses to each. The evening was spent in easy conversation about how their former house looks, where two fox-hunting prints now reside and the little girl who has Margaret's dusting-cap doll.
"Oh, I'm glad somebody's got something of mine," Margaret said.
The visit ended with the usual question of whether either needed anything.
"I want some of your string beans," Margaret informed Becraft.
"You want me to cook them with fatback or smoked turkey?" Becraft asked.
"Smoked turkey," Margaret chose.
Given that Becraft spent some funds prepaying funerals, both women are set for life and death. Both will be buried at Union Cemetery in Burtonsville, Margaret near her parents and Thelma beside her first husband. Thelma also has requested that she wear her pink dress with gold trim and gold wedding shoes--the ones with bells on them.
CAPTION: Sisters Margaret Wootten, 87, left, and Thelma Wines, 86, have lived together their entire lives.
CAPTION: Thelma Wines, 86, right, and Margaret Wootten, 87, share a room at Manor Care nursing home in Silver Spring. "We get along all right," Thelma said, though she did admit that there has been laundry thrown in the past.