Monday, May 16, 2011

Keeper of the Secrets

My mother's family, the Coleman's and the Naddy's were (and are) a vibrant set of personalities set behind beautiful Irish faces.

I got to know them through stories I heard over a ten year period from May of 1964 until January of 1974.  These stories were told by my mother, Rita, her mother, Clara and all of the relatives that came to "coffee" every late summer when Clara spent 4-6 weeks with us in Chicago Heights, escaping the dry-but-oppressive-heat of Scottsdale, AZ.

Most of the stories came from Clara.  When my grandmother came to visit us in the suburbs of Chicago every year she shared my room. The room was small (10 X 12) and usually contained my single bed, a nightstand, and a dresser with a large mirror (plus the mess and clutter of a teenage girl), but for Clara's visits I tidied up and we squeezed in two single beds with the nightstand between them.

I looked forward to Clara's arrival with as much anticipation as I would any girlfriend.  The truth is we were girlfriends. We were grandmother and granddaughter in the rest of the house, but when we were in my room we gossiped and teased like we were contemporaries.  We watched each other set our hair every night (hers in in exactly 23 pin curls, me teasing that she used one pin for every two hairs; and mine, seeking the perfect body for my straight hair, sometimes in enormous tomato cans, with Clara staring in wonder at how I was going to sleep with my Judy Jetson hairdo).

I had a large bulletin board above my bed that over the years collected all the things girls collect, nosegays, birthday cards, ticket stubs, dance favors, theatrical programs, etc.etc.  Clara was fascinated and delighted by this growing collage of my life and asked me for the story behind every new addition.  When the bulletin board ran out of space, I started arranging these mementos around the frame of the mirror much to the delight of Clara. She behaved as if the stories of my life were important and entertaining. 

I picked out Clara's jewelry every morning she visited.  My grandmother never left the bedroom in the morning without her hair styled; face powder, perfume and lipstick on; her earrings clipped in place and a brooch pinned to her shoulder.  She would pat her thinning hair while looking in the mirror and say, "There we are.  Now I won't scare the dog."

She taught me so much.

Beauty tips:
  • "A lady never carries her hands below her waist, always hold them up like this, or you develop big blue veins in the backs of your hands  Very unattractive."  (I followed this one and my hands are quite youthful looking for my age.)
  • "Do a final rinse with white vinegar and your hair will hang like silk down your back."
  • "Moisturize.  A girl should begin to care for her skin by the time she is 13." 
  • "Not too much perfume!  You want people to remember you were there, not regret that they sat next to you."
  • "Do not wear real pearls until after you are 30 years old.  It is in poor taste for younger women to wear pearls. It leads to gossip.   Everyone will assume you either inherited them or did something immoral to get them." 
  • "Always have a fresh cake or baked goods on hand in case someone drops by for coffee and a chat."  (We baked at least one cake every day Clara was visiting, there was a non-stop stream of folks dropping in for "coffee and a chat" when she was in town.)
  • "NEVER wear an Opal.  If you lose it from it's setting, someone close to you will die.   Nancy, I do not believe this, but why take chances?" 
  • "Never crack eggs on the side of the bowl, crack eggs against a flat surface so you do not get shell in the eggs."  
  • "Peel the potatoes for your supper just before lunch and store them in cold water.  Potatoes are time-consuming and it makes for a more pleasant afternoon to know they are out of the way."  
  • "Beat the butter and sugar together until it looks like whipped cream.  Baking is ruined by insufficient beating of the butter and sugar." 

During my teenage years Clara went to bed earlier than I, but was always awake when I entered the bedroom.  There we would sit, chatting, sometimes for hours.  We could get silly.   Sometimes my mother would come to the door of the room with a smirk on her face and say, "Do I have to separate you two?" And Clara and I would stifle our laughter and settle down, me to whatever book I was reading and she to her book or more often, her Rosary.

Clara had taken vows as a Lay Carmelite.

THE LAY CARMELITES is an association of lay people who, in response to a call from God, freely and willingly, promise to live the Gospel in the spirit of the Carmelite Order and under its guidance. The Lay Carmelite is connected to the Carmelite Order by means of the promise which he or she makes. It is possible, following a very ancient custom, to make private vows of chastity and obedience according to one's state in life in order to be consecrated more closely to God. Lay Carmelites, filled with the spirit of the Order, seek to live their own vocation by silently listening to the Word of God (Lectio Divina). According to the constant tradition of Carmel, they will especially cultivate prayer in all its forms. The members of the Lay Carmelites follow the charism of the Order which takes its inspiration from the figures of Our Lady and the Prophet Elijah. In the midst of their normal family lives, in the work place, in their social commitments and relationships with other people, Lay Carmelite members seek out the hidden image of God. They try to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes, humbly and consistently exercising the virtues of honesty,justice, sincerity, courtesy and fortitude, without which no Christian or human life is possible. 

Clara embodied the last sentence of the previous paragraph. The promise Clara made as a Carmelite defined her life.  She had committed to say the entire Rosary everyday and she did so.  She kept a Rosary under her pillow so she could pray the Joyful Mysteries when she awoke and the Glorious Mysteries when she went to bed at night.  I remember 320 mornings of helping her make the bed and having her Rosary hit the floor as we shook out a pillow or sheet.  That Rosary was made of stainless steel with silver chains and silver cross.  It was a 10 decade Rosary.  She also had two small glass Rosaries, one which she kept in her pocket (Clara insisted on pockets in her dresses for her Rosary and handkerchief, without a pocket she had to hide them under her belt) and one which she used as a book mark.  She used these five-decade Rosaries to pray the Sorrowful Mysteries during the day.   She told me that she never wanted to focus on the Sorrowful in the morning or at bedtime, but during the day she could balance the Sorrowful with life.

Balancing sorrow with life was what Clara had done every single day since Thanksgiving day, 1926.

 I was a nosy kid and I asked questions about everything.  We had a lot of time together during those summers.  In the late afternoon, after whatever company had stopped in for cake and coffee, I would ask for the lowdown, "Who are they and how do they fit in the family?"  And Clara would paint a picture for me of a relative of hers or Ted's, maybe an old friend from her working days at the Telephone Company and once in a while a relative of Dick Naddy's.  When a Naddy relative had been over, Clara could be pensive and it was while she was in this mood that I came to learn most of the stories I know about Dick and Clara.

Some were secrets.  The circumstances of my Uncle Jack's conception was a secret told to me when Clara was overcome with grief and melancholy as she tried to imagine life on earth without Rita.  She fairly blurted it out one Sunday evening after running into Uncle Jack and his daughter Jackie Ruth at the hospital visiting my mother, "Dick was in the cancer ward at Mayo Clinic when I became pregnant with Jack."  I just looked at her, speechless and she must have read my thoughts, because she quickly added, "I visited Dick every day and as his wife, they let me give him his bed baths."  And then my 74 year old grandmother blushed.

I have a few more secrets of Clara's that need to be told.  She entrusted me with some of these private stories and I have waited a long time to tell them wondering if the telling might hurt anyone.  On Mother's day I wrote about how one of my mother's step-brothers was in love with her his whole life.  My husband thinks this might have hurt his daughters.  I have to admit, I had not considered it.  And I am sorry if it does, but I still think telling stories is the right thing to do.  And I hope Harvey's girls appreciate that their father had a private tragedy, that stayed with him, even as he went through life as a good husband, father, uncle, friend and step-brother.

During the course of my mother's illness she gave some of her most cherished possessions to her children, stuff made by my dad or very sentimental items.  She gave my sister, Joy the engagement and wedding rings my father gave her the weekend they eloped.

This led to Clara telling me the story of her wedding ring.

Clara wore a small gold band with some engraving on the top.  When I asked her about it, she put her book down and asked me to sit next to her on the couch so I could see the ring under the light on the side table.  My grandmother was always chubby.  Even on her thinnest day Clara was round.  And the ring was on her finger very tightly.  But she started to work it off of her finger as she told me the following:

"I did not take the ring Dick gave off of my finger until Ted asked me to marry him."  she said, twisting the ring. 

"After we agreed to get married, Ted suggested we go to Hirsh Jewelry Store and pick out engagement and wedding rings for me.  So we made a date to go on Thursday evening, they were open until 7:00pm on Thursdays."  She licked her finger to ease the ring from it's position.

"I went home and took off my wedding ring from Dick.  In the morning, without telling Ted,  I went to see Mr. Hirsh at his jewelry store."  The ring was starting to move over her knuckle.

"On Thursday night, Mr. Hirsh greeted me and Ted as if he had not just seen me two days earlier.  He showed us a tray of rings and I chose the one with the pretty engraving on the top.  I slipped it on my finger and it fit!  I told Ted that we were not kids and I would just wear this ring as my engagement and wedding ring and wore it out of the store."  The ring was now sliding up her finger.

"I have never had it off since that day.  But look, is it still engraved inside?"  And she handed me the little gold band.  Inside it was engraved, Love Eternal, RFN.  I was confused until I realized what Clara had done.  She had taken Dick's ring to Mr Hirsh.  She had Dick's ring engraved on top, picked it from the tray, slipped it on her finger and never told her new husband, Ted, that she was wearing Dick's ring.

And then she said, "Oh, look honey!"  And on her finger where the ring had been was the impression of the engraving in white skin, Love Eternal, RFN.

"Please do not ever let Ted or Skippy know," she said as she worked the ring back on her finger.  I was going to tell your mother before I died.  I have to be buried with this ring on.  But your mother is going to go to heaven before me and I think you should know.  I have only had this ring off of my finger for two days in over 56 years."

My mother's family history is filled with stories of religion, love, cooking and beauty tips, and tragedy.  And, it seems, more than our fair share of tragic love stories.

Dick and Clara at Rainbow Beach in 1917

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