A military wife, Mary 'Kitty' Rolfes loved visiting with her family and neighbors
A Cubs fan, the "flower lady," husbands, wives, and more are part of the more than 1,400 Iowans lost COVID-19 as of early October 2020. Des Moines Register
Mary “Kitty” Rolfes loved to gab, usually about her family.
Kitty, 90, raised eight kids, and she had 18 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She surrounded herself with her offspring, and she reveled in telling her friends how they were doing.
“Boy, my mom was a talker,” recalled her son Tim. “She just loved to visit with people.”
And in her last days, the Rolfeses made sure she could continue her lifelong love of people.
After becoming infected during an outbreak at the Bishop Drumm nursing home in Johnston, her family arranged to have her transferred from the hospital to a special hospice wing for people with the disease. There, Tim and his sister, who also is named Mary Rolfes, were allowed to be by their mother's bedside before she died of COVID-19 on May 7.
“We couldn’t let Mom die alone,” Mary said. “She’d been through thick and thin for us, and we weren’t going to let it happen that way.”
Growing up in Le Mars, her brothers nicknamed her after a spunky comic-strip character, Kitty Higgins, a family obituary said.
In 1955, she married a widower, Al Rolfes, who had two young sons. Nine months later, she and Al had another son, and their family grew until it included seven boys and one girl.
Al, a World War II veteran of the Army, decided to resume his military career in the Iowa National Guard. They lived on several bases around Iowa before settling in at Camp Dodge in Johnston.
“We had a pretty big family, but somehow she kept it together,” Mary said. “She got us off to school on the bus, and she was always waiting for us when we came home.”
The house was crowded, but other neighborhood kids knew they were welcome. “There was always an extra plate at the table,” Mary said.
Kitty passed many days as a longtime volunteer at Camp Dodge’s Gold Star Museum, which commemorates Iowans’ military service. She also was a devoted Catholic, known for clutching her rosary as she watched her kids’ football and baseball games.
After her husband died in 2007, Kitty lived in senior-living apartments until health problems sent her to the nursing home in April. She was in constant contact with her family, and was a central part of holiday celebrations, especially Thanksgiving, her son said.
The hardest part about Kitty’s last few months was the way she was cut off from her family, due to visitor limits at her nursing home, Tim said. He once heard someone refer to the phenomenon as “benevolent incarceration” of America’s seniors.
Mary believes the public fails to grasp how hard the pandemic has been on many elderly residents. Many younger people seem to discount how their carelessness can help the virus continue to circulate in society, eventually reaching Iowans most susceptible to its deadly complications, she said.
She said a cable repairman recently came to her home. He sarcastically said he would put on a mask because of “that fake virus.”
Mary replied: “I hate to tell you, but that ‘fake virus’ killed my mom.”
The man apologized and seemed to better grasp the gravity of the pandemic. Mary hopes others do the same when they read about her mother and the others who have died from the disease.
Iowa Mourns is a series of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at email@example.com.
Tony Leys covers health care for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8449.
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