It was almost two years ago that I met Anastasia for the first time. I knew nothing about her except that she had recently moved into the Westwood 2nd ward, was a mature sister with no immediate family and had a sick cat that needed to be taken to the vet. I found a babysitter for my children and picked her up wearing my new cat shoes that I thought would brighten her evening. I was so naïve.
What I found on Livonia Ave. was an 89-year-old woman who struggled to make it down the stairs from her apartment, who had a room that wreaked of urine from her sick and traumatized cats, who paid the astronomical vet fees fully knowing it would mean she couldn’t feed herself for the month and who explained to me all the way home how she had been righteous all of her life and somehow God had forgotten her. A few hours after optimistic Heather left the house I got home and sobbed myself to sleep; how silly of me to think that a pair of cat shoes could lighten the load from such old and weary shoulders. I realized that I still had a lot to learn, and promised Heavenly Father, and later Anastasia, that I would not make her go through the end of her life and remainder of her trials alone. Two years later I feel so much comfort in knowing that I fulfilled my promise to both of them, and I hope they’re both pleased with my efforts.
The last thing to do in order to close this chapter of my life and hers was to deliver the life sketch/eulogy at her memorial service this afternoon. Since her next of kin is a niece in South Africa with whom she hasn't had a lot of contact, I was left with her own records, her friend's memories and the information she shared with me to write 90 years worth of material on the full life I was sure she led. It was grand indeed and I'm so grateful for this new understanding of the many lifetimes Anastasia lived in just her single life. As the years go by I'm more and more confident that we don't ever really know someone completely, even when we're with them on the daily.
Below I have included a few of my favorite pictures of her and the comments I gave. Farewell Anastasia, until we meet again.
Nearly 20 years ago my great grandmother, Nana, passed away when she was just 73 years old. Although she was still so young, she was the last surviving member of her immediate family and missed them so much after they left. I found this poem in her belongings, and even as a little girl the words touched me so much that I memorized them.
Who shall I ask? There is no one to answer.
Who shall I ask? For they are all gone.
I need to know so many answers,
The last of my family I have lived on.
Why didn’t I ask one of my brothers,
The questions I wanted the answers to know?
They are all gone, unasked and unanswered
The memories of childhood still linger on
Where’s the log cabin with trees all around it?
Standing alone at the top of a hill.
Is it only in memory I see it, or is it standing there still?
So children remember as you’re growing older
Ask of your loved ones what you want to know.
Don’t wait to question, but share all the memories
Enjoying each other before they all go.
As I was trying to prepare a life sketch for Anastasia this poem kept coming to my mind, probably because I so wish that on one of our daily phone calls or visits over the last couple years I would have intentionally shifted the conversation from Anastasia’s current trials and uncertain future, to stories about the long and exciting life that I’m sure she led in the past. Memories of travels, important people, and life events were peppered into our conversations, but now that she’s gone I wish I knew more details about what made the woman that we all knew.
I know I can’t do her life justice with my meager words today, but I’d like to paint a small picture of the life Anastasia lived from her detailed records, from her friend’s stories and from the memories she shared with me.
Anastasia Vandoros, named after her paternal grandmother, was born on June 30th, 1927 in what was then known as Elizabethville, Belgian Congo in Africa. She had an older sister named Elpiniki, Niki for short, who adored her throughout her life. Her parents, Joachim and Anna, were both Greek nationals and although Anastasia grew up in Cape Town, South Africa she carried a Greek passport until she became a naturalized American citizen.
Anastasia, or Ta-see-a as her closest family members called her, was very athletic in her youth. She was the captain of her baseball team and the picture is straight from “A League of their Own.” She also had a thing for the arts; she acted in the drama club and was a very talented painter. A grade school report said, “Tasia is a good little worker but is far too talkative.” Anyone who shared a phone conversation with her knows that that didn’t change much in her lifetime!
She had an adventurous spirit from an early age. She was barely in her 20’s when she left home and was very proud of the fact that she travelled the world on her own. She lived in England and travelled all over Europe before first immigrating to Canada and eventually to America in 1960. If you get a chance you must take a look at her passport, it’s incredibly impressive!
Anastasia joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on May 1st, 1954. She was 26 years old and living in England at the time. It was during this period of time that she received the first of what I understand were multiple marriage proposals. Although she never married, it was not because there was a lack of interest from others. Perhaps her most serious offer was from her boyfriend, Noell, but she declined because she felt like God wanted her to move in a different direction. Her closest friends told me that even 60 years later she had some regrets about not pursuing this relationship, but she had faith that God had a special mission for her to conduct on earth and that became the foundation of her life.
And what was that special mission? All of you know the answer to that: the animals.
Anastasia loved animals and they loved her. Her niece, Gillian, says that while most people put human beings first, Tasia saw animals as equal expressions of the Divine. In The Hollywood Citizen Newspaper in 1970 they spotlighted the work that she was doing with the company she founded, Animals Unlimited, and they called her the Florence Nightingale of the pound, a title I’m sure she adored. She always had a houseful of cats and dogs, but there was a time in Woodland Hills where she also had ducks and chickens and horses and goats. She owned a thrift store, worked as a legal assistant, did some sort of accounting work in her youth and held many other jobs, but all of that money went to fund her passion project—keeping animals safe. She drove a 15-passenger van and rescued animals from shelters, homes and off the streets of Los Angeles. She also loved educating people about what to do with animals in case of emergency.
Anastasia held many callings during her membership in the church. She wrote a touching poem called “This is the greatest” that highlights some of them. It reads:
Very new in this country it was asked of me,
That I ward drama director would be,
We learned together, the actors and I,
Ambitious? Why we would reach for the sky!
This is the greatest, said I.
At various times later, a teacher I became,
Whatever the age-group, the joy was the same,
As a teacher I found I learned more than they,
My love for each one of them grew day by day,
Surely this is the greatest, said I?
As coordinator in Junior Sunday school I’d see,
Faith and trust in those young eyes looking up at me.
We talked together of the Father and the Son,
Such faith and humility is found in the young.
Oh…..this is the greatest, said I.
Stake drama director? This I dearly loved,
As I taught and guided and sometimes gently shoved,
More fully I learned that the uplift of man,
Is a noble part of the gospel plan
Oh yes, this is the greatest, said I.
And then as missionary my heart was filled with joy,
As I watched the faith of a certain young boy,
Then came the day he received that great gift from above,
He, who would guide, thru light, with love.
Surely, this it the greatest said I?
Yes all are the greatest for it’s the purpose that’s clear,
To bring to our Father His children so dear,
Dear Lord, as I through my life span to go,
May I ever my love and devotion to Thee show,
For to know and be known of the Father on High,
This is the greatest, say I.
She also found a lot of satisfaction in her callings in the scouts program, as well as emergency preparedness, especially with the animals. One of her dear friends Ceil told me “once she joined the church she never looked back. She had a close relationship with the Lord and received answers and directions, which she followed, and in many cases doors were opened for her. She was strong, a fighter, a doer.”
One thing is perfectly clear when taking a look at Anastasia’s life and that is that she was surrounded by some of the best people this earth had to offer. She was very fond of Elder Holland and one of his quotes that I found again and again in her sacred files was, “I testify of angels both heavenly and the mortal kind. In doing so I am testifying that God never leaves us alone, never leaves us unaided in the challenges we face. In the process of praying for those angels to attend us, may we all try to be a little more angelic ourselves—with a kind word, a strong arm, a declaration of faith…”
As I look around this room I am sure that you are the angels Heavenly Father sent to help her through this mortal journey. You all were in the trenches with Anastasia trying to keep her housed and fed and comfortable and satisfied. Just in case she didn’t say it enough when she was on earth, thank you for being there, for serving her and for being true examples of our Savior Jesus Christ.
She had particular love and respect for her home teacher of thirty years Bob Neill, her close friend and ally Julie Olsen, and some old Woodland Hills friends Ceil and Bishop Brent and his wife Jan. She had tremendous respect for Bishop Green and Bishop Hayes, was lovingly cared for by many caregivers, but Luz you were so good to her at the end and she adored you. Gayla spent endless time and patience with her preparing documents related to her passing and one of the most beautiful moments I ever witnessed was Betty Ann lovingly rubbing and blessing Anastasia’s body when she was so sick and miserable near the end. There are so many other friends here from the Hollywood, Woodland Hills and Westwood 2nd Ward, thank you again for being a part of this team.
Anastasia fought breast cancer almost a decade ago and after having a mastectomy and finishing a rigid treatment plan she was given a clean bill of health. Almost a year ago, however, the cancer came back and this time she felt wary of the doctor’s advice and refused treatment. She was often uncomfortable, in pain and anxious about her symptoms, especially when the cancer began spreading and affecting other areas of her body, but she continued on with her signature grit and independence.
In January of this year Anastasia was found unresponsive by her caregiver and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. She spent the next two months in various hospitals and care facilities with doctors and nurses and friends who were attentive to her medical, physical and spiritual needs. As was the story of her life, she was well cared for at the end.
Anastasia passed away on the evening of February 25, 2018 at the Country Villa Retirement Home. She was 90 years and 8 months old.
The day before she passed I could sense that the end was near. She was on hospice and hadn’t eaten for days. I was rubbing her head and telling her how proud God was of her, how she had done so much good on this earth, and that I loved her. During the weeks before she passed she transformed from a woman who needed my service to a woman who just needed my love, and Heavenly Father gave me that for her in abundance. Although her mouth was dry and she had been in and out of consciousness for days at that point, she gave me a pure and big and beautiful smile and said, “I. Love. You.” That moment was a gift. I know that Anastasia is out of pain, out of turmoil, out of the anxieties that life brought her and is looking down on us now and wanting me to share that same message with each of you. I have a testimony that families are forever and I’m sure the reunion she shared with her parents, sister, and the many animals waiting for her in heaven was joyous.