Inseparable in life, two elderly sisters die of natural causes in the same weekend.
By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2002
LARGO -- The two sisters clung to each other as they aged, as one became a widow, as arthritis stiffened their joints, as they grew too feeble to take the cruises they once enjoyed.
They had no children, no other siblings, no known blood relatives. They lived alone, together.
Sometime last weekend, they died alone, together.
"They were as close as could be," said Cindy Triffon, who has lived across the street for almost 30 years.
The sisters died sometime between July 19, when a neighbor saw 90-year-old Helborg Gilbertson walking with her cane to the mailbox, and Monday, when concerned neighbors asked sheriff's deputies to check on the women.
One was found in bed, the other in a living room chair. Both died of natural causes, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Whichever sister passed away last may have died of a broken heart.
"Knowing how dependent she was on her sister for friendship and emotional support," said John Cummings, a nephew, "she may have just expired."
Gudrun Cummings, 86, who went by "Goodie," was in the poorer health of the two, though neither was sick. "Just the typical old-age infirmities," John Cummings said.
Ms. Gilbertson, or "Gillie," still drove herself to the beauty shop or to visit friends.
But while the sisters were well-known in their neighborhood and occasionally kept in touch with the nieces and nephews of Goodie's late husband Don, their closest family was each other.
When sheriff's deputies discovered their bodies, they had to search the women's address book for a relative to call. They chose Cummings, of Rochester, Minn., because his last name matched Goodie's.
On Saturday he was in Largo, sifting through their belongings and trying to reconstruct enough history to write obituaries for both. But he soon realized that when the two sisters died together, their history mostly died with them.
He told the funeral home that Gillie was a nurse at the University of Minnesota Hospital, then learned while sorting her personal papers that she was actually an executive secretary in the hospital's auditing department. He found postcards and letters from friends and family in Norway, where the sisters' parents were from, but didn't know if they still had family there.
When he found a church newsletter addressed to one of the women, he wondered if they had been members.
He had to stick to the basics when he provided information to the funeral home: They were born in Willmar, Minn., and they were Lutheran, among a few other facts. Their official date of death was Monday (July 22, 2002), though that was actually the day they were found; by then unread newspapers had already accumulated in the driveway for a couple of days.
Although the kinship connection was remote, he wanted to list himself, his sister and cousins -- Beth Cummings of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Huston, George and Robert Paschal, all of Raleigh, N.C. -- as survivors.
The sisters were always close. When Don and Goodie Cummings retired to Largo in 1972 from Milwaukee, Gillie followed three years later from Minneapolis.
Before Don Cummings died in 1991, he, Goodie and Gillie took trips together, traveling the world on cruises and visiting Norway often.
"They were pretty much inseparable," John Cummings said.
Around their Largo neighborhood, the sisters were known as animal lovers. They enjoyed the dogs next door and even presented doggie treats at Christmas for Rudy, a miniature dachshund that lived across the street.
Gillie called Rudy "her handsome fella," said his owner, Cindy Triffon.
"He's not supposed to run across the street," Triffon said. "But he would always run over there when he saw Helborg walk down the driveway to her mailbox."
After the women were found in their Apache Avenue home near Largo, a neighbor searched for their 14-year-old cat, Ashley, who was found cowering in a closet.
John Cummings said he cannot know which of the sisters died first, or how the other reacted.
"You understand if they gave up," after the first sister died, Cummings said, "or thought there's no reason to go on."