Nothing made Wanda Howell happier than when the local oldies station played songs by her favorite singer of all time, Bobby Rydell. It was not only his voice that lifted her spirits, but she considered him the best-looking man in the world. In fact, she had been totally smitten by Rydell since first seeing him on American Bandstand in the late 1950s. Despite the passing decades, the teen idol never aged in Wanda's mind, which had been oxygen deprived at birth, seriously impairing her cognitive abilities. With an IQ in the 60s, Wanda's range of interests was limited, but her enthusiasm for the few things she enjoyed was boundless.
For twenty-seven years, she had resided in a group home on the outskirts of Kearney, Nebraska, only five miles from where her parents had lived until their deaths. Her winsome disposition endeared her to the staff of the facility, which did everything it could to make her life comfortable and fulfilling. This was not a challenge since having her favorite ice cream (butter pecan) on hand and reserving a front row seat in the television room for her to watch General Hospital were all she appeared to need––in addition to her beloved Bobby Rydell cassettes.
Wanda had every recording ever made by Rydell, but she could not get enough of two particular songs––"The Cha-Cha-Cha" and "Volare." At most hours, she could be seen dancing to the tunes in her small room just off the lobby. Staff members often joined her as she swirled around her bed and on occasion they would spill into the hall to the mild bemusement of the home's director, Kyle Livingston, who feared they might collide with other residents. Secretly, however, he thought the romping was harmless and probably a morale booster for everyone––staff and residents alike. Indeed, he had come to feel great affection for Wanda over the years that he managed the home.
At first, he found her demeanor and limited repartee irritating, but in time he came to regard her as a model resident, since she caused no problem and actually lifted the mood and atmosphere of the facility. Her contagious effervescence made her something of a beloved mascot––an ambassador of goodwill––at Kearney House.
Over the years, Wanda's room had become a virtual shrine to her idol. Every inch of wall space was covered with posters and photos of the young Rydell, and every time someone passed her room, she would invariably invite them in to admire her precious collection.
"See, Bobby!" she would shout to passersby, and most would simply wave as they passed having heard her invitation countless times.
Wanda's friendly summons was always followed by the words "Wanda love Bobby" and the lyrics to one of Rydell's hits. Although she could barely connect two cogent sentences during a conversation, she performed the songs flawlessly and always with great zeal.
At Christmas time, she did get on some people's nerves by repeatedly singing Rydell's version of "Jingle Bell Rock."
"Can't you sing 'Silent Night' or 'Frosty the Snowman,' sweetie?" the receptionist, Bernice Webster, would plead, doing her best to turn a deaf ear to Wanda's perseveration, because she, like everyone else in the facility, cared for her and did not want to hurt her feelings.
"Wanda love Bobby," she would respond, continuing her ceaseless rendition of the holiday staple.
For several days following her sixty-fourth birthday, Wanda complained of extreme abdominal pain. Eventually, she was taken to the hospital where an ex-ray revealed an object lodged in her lower intestine, which was quickly removed. To everyone's surprise it was a partially masticated photo of Bobby Rydell. When Kearney House staff inspected Wanda's bedroom walls, they noticed several spaces where photos of her idol had previously hung.
After a couple of days, Wanda was returned home, but she was not her usual sunny self, spending most her time in bed and eating little. Staff believed her gloomy mood was the result of their removing all edible pictures from her room.
Each time she was visited by concerned staff, she would mournfully moan "Wanda love Bobby."
When some facility personnel suggested that the pictures be returned, Kyle Livingston was disinclined to comply, fearing Wanda would again attempt to devour them. Despite this, Wanda's loyal caregivers continued to pressure Livingston to do what they felt would restore her to her previous disposition.
The Tuesday after Wanda's return from the hospital, Bernice noticed that Bobby Rydell was actually scheduled to perform live at the Kearney County Fair two days hence. She immediately sprang into action to get the singer to visit Wanda, figuring that it may overcome her deepening funk. To her great satisfaction, the crooner agreed to show up at Kearney House at a designated time, and true to his word, he did so punctually.
"This will mean so much to Wanda," said Bernice to the graying and paunchy balladeer, whose winning smile had changed little since his heyday.
"Always happy to help a fan. Show me the way," said Rydell, who was then escorted to Wanda's room by both the receptionist and Kyle.
"We'll stay out here, so the focus is just on you," said Bernice.
"Well, maybe we should accompany Mr. Rydell," protested Kyle, prompting Bernice to grab his arm.
"We'll be right here in the hall, Mr. Rydell, if you need anything," said Bernice firmly.
"Okay," replied Kyle, reluctantly allowing Rydell to access the room on his own.
A moment after the singer entered it, a deafening scream occurred.
"Old man! Get out . . . help! Old man!" shrieked Wanda, as Rydell ran from her room.
"As soon as she saw me, she went bonkers," reported Rydell, the color drained from his lined face.
Kyle and Bernice calmed Wanda while the singer stood dejected in the hall. They then thanked him for his effort and escorted him to an awaiting taxi.
"She really loves you, Mr. Rydell, said Bernice apologetically.
"Yeah, I could tell. My fans always react like that when they see me," he responded, with a reassuring wink.
For the rest of the day, Wanda remained in an agitated state finally falling to sleep to the soothing chords of "Childhood Sweetheart."
While Wanda slept, Kyle placed two photos of Rydell inside plexi-glass picture frames and instructed the facility's custodian to secure them to the wall of her room.
When Bernice and Kyle arrived at work the next morning, they were greeted by the strains of "The Cha-Cha-Cha."
"How are you, Wanda?" asked Kyle, poking his head into her room on his way to his office.
"See Bobby," she replied, standing before the photos of her young dream lover.
"Wanda love Bobby . . . Wanda love Bobby."
BIO: Michael C. Keith is the author of over 20 books (mostly on media topics) and many articles and short stories. In 2003 his memoir, The Next Better Place, was published by Algonquin Books and received high praise from critics. Keith teaches Communication at Boston College and is the recipient of numerous awards for his scholarship in radio studies.