Music transforms her into a dancing woman
SALEM – Although Parkinson’s is her constant companion, when some of her favorite bands start playing bluegrass at the Salem Senior Center, Robertine Thomas can dance.
The 70-year-old Salem resident gets out of her wheelchair with the help of caregiver and friend Nellie King of Vinton, King’s friend Buddy Gibson of Blue Ridge and Thomas’ daughter, Joyce Thomas of Cloverdale.
Gibson holds Robertine Thomas gently and the two just dance. Sometimes they support Thomas, holding her arms so she can flatfoot to the music of Lee Palmer’s Standing in the Shadows Band and the Original Orchard Grass.
“I enjoy doing things like that, dancing and the music. With the help of my friends,” said Thomas who refuses to surrender to Parkinson’s disease that first grabbed her in 1991 when she was 49. “I enjoy doing some cooking, and growing tomatoes and flowers,” she told the Salem Times-Register later.
“When the music was playing, her eyes were dancing all the time,” said Nina Elick of Salem, who noticed Thomas at the Senior Center on July 2 when Elick was with her friends Eloise Earnest and Ruby I. Palauro.
“Mrs. Thomas helped put life in perspective,” said Palauro. “It just gives you hope. She turned her disability into a capability.”
That night was the first time Palauro had seen Thomas. She was so impressed, Palauro asked to take photographs of Thomas dancing, and wanted to know more of her story.
“Mom enjoys life even with Parkinson’s. She doesn’t want to be defined by Parkinson’s but what she loves in life,” Joyce said later. “She exercises every day and walks with a walker to try to keep herself as active as she can.”
“Nellie, who works with Helping Hands, is really good about getting Mom out.” There are other caregivers, too, for round-the-clock care. Her mother’s church family from North Roanoke Baptist Church visit with her and give a lot of encouragement, Joyce said.
Robertine Thomas was born in Franklin County and raised in Floyd. She worked 25 years for GE, and in 1991 moved to Salem. She and her husband, Grover Thomas, were married 50-1/2 years before he passed on in 2009. Their daughters are Joyce, Kathy Martin and her husband Doug, and granddaughter Rebekah Martin of Christiansburg.
Music on the first Monday night of each month at the Salem Senior Center is coordinated by Dwayne Cole, who fills in as a bass player as needed. He also invites bluegrass and country musicians to get together on Saturday nights at the Salem Farmers’ Market. There’s no charge for Cole’s Monday nights. He passes a hat to collect donations and to pay for expenses at the center.
Thomas said she intends to continue coming to hear the music – and to dance – at the Salem Senior Center, “every time they have gospel and bluegrass that I like.”