Rita Stack was one of a kind.
She was a unique presence at our community center with her luminous smile and friendly greetings. There were no strangers in Rita's life -- only friends and soon-to-be friends. She was incredibly active, a fixture at the water aerobics class, at mental health trivia games, bingo, Mexican Train -- and she always stole the show at the annual Follies variety show where she portrayed, variously, the world's oldest living Mouseketeer, a honeymooner, and the reigning Miss Sun City Anthem. Her sense of humor was legendary, her generosity of spirit an inspiration.
Diane, her water aerobics instructor, told a story about Rita calming her as she fretted about low attendance at the class one day. "She told me 'Don't worry about the people who aren't here. Concentrate on the people who are here!' And later, as she caught me frowning over the attendance sheet, Rita leaned over to me and whispered 'Stop worrying!'"
Paul, a member of the theatrical society, talked about encountering Rita in the semi-darkness of backstage during a dress rehearsal for the Follies show. He greeted her enthusiastically and she replied with equal joy: "Hello, Betty! It's so good to see you!"
The crowd erupted with laughter at this point, Betty and her partner Kathleen laughing most heartily of all. Betty is about the same height as Paul with close-cropped hair. Paul continued with his story: "So I bent down to kiss her and she stroked my cheek, discovering my two days growth of stubble. She stopped short. 'You're not Betty!" she said. And I said 'No, I'm Paul.' Her face brightened. 'Oh, Paul!' she said, laughing. "Well, I'm truly glad to see you, too!"
A woman told of the time she encountered Rita at a New Year's Eve party in this same ballroom a few years ago. She looked more joyous than usual and the woman asked her what was so delighting her.
"My daughter," Rita said, beaming, pointing to Yvette on the dance floor. "My daughter is feeling better tonight, well enough to dance. She's still my baby, you know. And it brings such joy to my heart to see my little girl dancing..."
Another man in the crowded ballroom talked quietly about his grief over losing his mother in 2005 and "I thought I had lost everything, but in 2008, I met Rita and she was like a second mother to me. She cared so much about what I thought and how I was feeling. She was -- and is -- an angel."
And so many spoke of Rita as a role model for the rest of us. We explored the lessons Rita taught us about living a graceful and meaningful older age.
Her friend Betty read passages from Rita's journal that revealed both the hardships of her childhood and lifelong feelings of good fortune. There was a video of her life in pictures along with filmed scenes of Rita's "Follies" highlights. Throughout the film, the song "Aquarius" played. And we learned that whenever Rita was alone in the house she and Yvette shared, she would put on her favorite album, the original cast recording of "Hair" and play her all-time favorite song "Aquarius" over and over.
When the moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars...
With the song still ringing in our ears, we all went out to the lawn behind the community center and stood in a very large circle. In the center of the circle, Yvette and Leo released yellow balloons, embracing each other and calling out to the heavens their love for their mother. The rest of us released white balloons with blessings and resolutions to emulate Rita by living each day with more love and kindness and joy.