‘Wendy’s Wisdom’ lives on
Taylor Library hosts Scranton author
All of these things, she feels, she owes to her late sister Wendy, who she considered her best friend as they grew up together in New York. Wendy lived with Down syndrome and passed away at the age of 59.
“I don’t think I would have become what I became in any field without knowing Wendy,” Skramstad insisted.
“At that young age, I couldn’t appreciate all the positive contributions of people with Down syndrome and I thought I was going to become the researcher that was going to eliminate it from the world. Now I think that they are the meek that are supposed to inherit the Earth.”
Wendy also made her an author, as she felt compelled to tell her sister’s inspirational story after some unusual circumstances following her death.
“When she passed away, her spirit, believe it or not – and I never used to believe in these things – wouldn’t let me sleep. My horses…hadn’t done much in 2007, which was the year she died. I had one horse who hadn’t earned a penny since January 1. After Wendy died, my horses started to do incredible things,” Skramstad recalled, explaining that two of her race horses suddenly began placing first and second.
“The state steward came up to me…and said, ‘Boy, you must really know how to live. You had two of these happen in two weeks. A trainer can go a whole lifetime, a whole career, and never have that happen. One of my female trainer friends, who was in the paddock at the time, said, ‘No, that’s her sister Wendy pushing really hard from heaven.’ And I laughed, but I truly believed that.
“One night, I was trying to sleep, and it was about six weeks after Wendy died, and I heard this little voice in my ear, ‘Sherry, get up and type. Tell my story.’ In the introduction, I say the author had no choice but to obey.”
She wrote “Wendy’s Wisdom: The Challenges and Accomplishments of a Woman with Down Syndrome” in just four months, but it took two years for the book to eventually be published in 2010. It not only chronicles her sibling’s life, but it also paints a portrait of the many facets of her personality.
“She was very wise. She didn’t see grays – things were black and white to Wendy, and I frequently asked her advice on different things…She became a world traveler. She collected works of art. She loved going to art galleries in Greenwich Village, and she especially liked Picasso and Marc Chagall. She gave a tour at the opening of the Guggenheim Museum – there’s a chapter in the book about that,” she described.
“We had gone on opening day to see the museum…Wendy would wax philosophical about the different paintings that she was viewing and everybody who came off the elevators behind us would stop and listen to her explain her thoughts on each work of art. She had a whole tour! By the time we got to the lobby at the bottom people were thanking her. Somebody even gave her a tip.”
Skramstad laughed as she remembered Wendy’s incredible luck.
“She was a very, very lucky and avid gambler. She won all her color at the roulette wheel at the largest casino in the Western Hemisphere in the Bahamas,” she noted.
“I was gone. I was standing in the back watching her. I lost all my chips…She had a number system for winning at the race track. Everybody wanted to be her partner.”
She also had a distinct sense of humor.
“She won the jackpot at a bingo hall and it was $1,000…The woman came back with a stack of twenties and put them down on the table in front of Wendy and her face was crestfallen. She said, ‘That’s $1,000?’ So she took the stack of twenties away and she said to Wendy, ‘I’ll be right back.’ She came back with her arms loaded with $1,000 worth of singles and she put them on the table and they fell into her lap. She said, ‘Now that’s $1,000!’ She was such a kick. I enjoyed her so much.”
Growing up in the time period they did, however, wasn’t easy for those with Down syndrome despite her obvious intelligence, wit, and capabilities.
“When my sister was born in 1948, the doctors told my mother that she would never walk, talk, or be toilet-trained, that my mother would be better off placing her in Willowbrook, where they knew how to take care of people like this,” she said.
Skramstad pointed out that an investigative report by Geraldo Rivera of Willowbrook State School in New York revealed horrific abuse of patients that led to its closure in 1987 and federal civil rights legislation protecting those with intellectual disabilities.
“If only my sister had been born 30 years later, she could have been the first astronomer with Down syndrome. She loved planetary things. We’d go to the library and she’d make me take out books and read to her about all the different planets and she’d quiz me about them. She was amazing.”
Their mother and stepfather became co-founders of the organization that would eventually become The Arc, which protects the rights of those with intellectual disabilities, and while Skramstad feels that much progress has been made it terms of understanding and helping those with Down syndrome, she continues to educate people through readings, signings, and discussions of her book, stopping for an appearance on Aug. 25 at the Taylor Community Library, 710 South Main St., Taylor.
“There’s still prejudice in some areas. I want people to know that people with Down syndrome, I think, are not greedy; they are not self-serving, generally…They are grateful for the planet that the Creator gave us, and I don’t think they’d destroy it like we would. I just think they care about each other and doing the right thing,” she commented.
“I’m hoping that the people who come to Taylor will have an interest in listening and learning and sharing their ideas, their questions, whatever.”
At a similar appearance in New York, one woman she spoke to was able to pin down the central message of the book and Wendy’s simple, yet profound wisdom.
“She said, ‘Wow. Wendy had a really powerful message – if you just don’t get involved in all the grays and you do the right thing, you live a happy, healthy life. The next time I have a problem, I’m going to ask myself, ‘What would Wendy do?’ My heart just swelled when she said that. That was the whole purpose of me naming the book ‘Wendy’s Wisdom.’ I felt so gratified when that woman said that,”
“My sister saw things in black and white – it was wrong or it was right. If you stick to that, you’re OK. You do the right thing.”