Christianne Amato and Patricia Rodgers

Patricia Rodgers, now 91, built her Harleysville home with her first husband, Dave. Pat installed the floors, and in 1957, nine months pregnant with daughter Diane, climbed to the top to finish the roof.

Decades later, Pat did not hesitate when Diane asked what she’d like for her 80th birthday: “A Dremel. The back steps need replacing.” By then retired from both her real estate and antiques businesses, those perfect stairs were Pat’s big summer project.

“It’s good to be able to stand on your own two feet,” she said recently.

In the 2010s, Pat began to forget things — eventually, even some important things, such as when to take her medicine. She began losing some of her physical strength. She could no longer drive. Dave had died in the early 1980s and her second husband, Warren, in 2015. She needed some help.

Diane and Janet, Pat’s younger daughter, were still working, so a family friend was hired. In 2018, that friend developed her own health problems, and the daughters began an excruciating and frustrating search. “My mom has short-term memory issues, but she is an extremely intelligent person,” Diane said. “I was having a hard time finding someone who wouldn’t speak to her like she’s a little kid. Someone I could trust.”

Christianne Amato, 49, is a portrait painter who was inspired by her own recovery to become a drug and alcohol counselor. Married briefly in the 1990s, Christianne realized she much preferred leading her own life, one centered around family, friends, painting, cooking, writing, and books.

In August of 2018, a car accident disrupted her peace and purpose. She suffered extensive injuries, could not work, and had to relearn to walk. She moved in with her parents, Sylvia and Carmen. Nearly a year later, Christianne was healed enough to want to work again, but the physical requirements of her counseling job made returning impossible.

She knew her Aunt Pat — technically her mother’s cousin — needed help that the family was struggling to find. She and Pat had only seen each other a few times a year since Christianne became an adult, but Pat, who is close to Christianne’s parents, had played a starring role in some of the best parts of Christianne’s childhood.

“My earliest memory is riding my tricycle in Aunt Pat’s driveway on Long Beach Island,” Christianne said. “Every year we spend [part of the summer] there. You would hear Aunt Pat and Uncle Dave laughing before you even turned onto the street.”

Christianne called Diane and offered to fill in until permanent help was found. “I thought at the time it would help my family and also give me a chance to figure out what I wanted to do next,” she said.

Diane had never imagined Christianne as anyone’s caregiver but knew her mother had always liked her, and, frankly, they were in a bind.

In May 2019, Christianne became Aunt Pat’s helper. It was a bumpy beginning as both women learned to adapt to the near-constant company of someone they were fond of, but no longer knew well. Family ties added more pressure to make it work.

Pat, who had once been a caregiver for her own aunts, would still prefer not to have anyone’s help. Since she must, she’s glad Christianne is the person helping.

“She’s interesting, because she reads a lot,” Pat said. “I’m interested in what she says, and she is interested in what I have to say. Warren and I went to Germany, Italy, London, France, China — where didn’t we go? So I have stories from traveling the world.”

Christianne makes sure Pat takes her medicine on time. “That is very important,” Pat says.

Christianne also cooks Pat’s favorite meals — spaghetti and meatballs, chicken and cranberry sauce — substituting tofu for the meat on her own plate. She provides snacks every two hours. She helps Pat change TV channels and work her iPhone. When the weather is nice, Christianne sits with Pat in the sunshine. And they have watched 16 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy together.

By Christmas 2019, Christianne realized being Aunt Pat’s caregiver was not a placeholder, but exactly what she wants to do.

A lot of family lives nearby, and until March, Pat welcomed a slew of frequent visitors: her daughters, her grandchildren, Christianne’s parents, neighbors, and friends. During those visits, Christianne could spend time with her friends or enjoy some solitude with her painting or a book. Caring for her aunt accommodated both her own physical limitations — sitting too long is painful — and allowed space for her creative pursuits.

Then in March, COVID-19 changed the rhythm of the household.

There are still careful, weekly visits with Diane and Janet, but no restaurant outings, no trips to the Shore, no visits with neighbors, and, saddest of all for Pat, no time with her grandchildren.

Now, during her time off, Christianne sees only her parents, keeping her COVID bubble very small to keep Aunt Pat safe. When Christianne is off, Diane steps in.

With even more time in only each other’s company, the two women needed a project.

From boxes, drawers, and envelopes around the house, Christianne gathered Pat’s extensive photo collection — about four filing drawers and 100 years’ worth of family history. Every day, the women sift through them together and travel through time, with Pat, whose long-term memory remains very strong, serving as Christianne’s guide.

Pat writes the names of the people in the photos on the back as she tells their stories to Christianne, who takes careful notes on her laptop.

There’s a photo of 2-year-old Christianne on her tricycle, just before she fell off, and many images of family gatherings down the Shore. There are photos of Pat with husband Dave and their girls, and with husband Warren, playing cards with Christianne’s parents. She’s at her antique store in one, and laying cement and bricks around her home’s foundation in another. “The basement kept flooding, and we were trying to prevent that,” Pat said.

Photos yielded stories Christianne had never heard about Pat’s mother’s Germantown hair salon and the boarders she took in to support the family during the Great Depression, and Christianne’s grandmother’s heart, crushed when her trolley conductor boyfriend broke things off to date and marry her sister, mended when she met and married Christianne’s grandfather.

Pat enjoys sharing the family history with Christianne.

“Things aren’t as free and open as they used to be before the pandemic, but together, we’re OK,” Pat said. “It’s very good to be independent, but it’s nice to be knowledgeable, too. So I accepted all the help I could get.”

For both Diane and Christianne, things are much better than OK.

“Thank goodness Mom is at home with Christianne right now, where she is safe and happy and where I can go see her,” said Diane.

Christianne is thankful for everything she’s learned from her aunt.

“I’ve gotten to learn this rich history of my family,” she said. “And I’ve learned patience and tolerance, and how to put someone else’s needs above my own.”