Friday, March 28, 2008

In Memory of Ana

Last fall, the Memoir Project was in East Boston where we had a lively group of seniors talking and writing about their Italian-American heritage. It wasn't unusual for them to lapse into Italian for those few concepts, or foods, that could not be captured or described properly in English.

One woman, Marie, described her work life, something that fascinates me. Women in the 40s who worked have great stories about that world, in part because they worked so much with men. Marie had many jobs, one of which was putting glitter on greeting cards. She talked about putting the glitter on her fingernails out of boredom. This, until she found her true calling as a sales clerk in a department store. She talked about making sales and working with customers. She talked about joking with the other commuters on the way to work, all men, who liked her frank humor and saucy charm. At least, I think that's what the men must have liked best about her. That's what I like best about her even now. 

I also loved Ana, who was 96 last fall. She came to every single class, although most participants have to miss a few because of doctor's appointments and whatnot. Ana was thinking she would have to miss because the doctors were telling her she needed cataract surgery. We balked at that, all of us. "At your age?" We asked. "Is that a good idea?" She wasn't sure, either. She had no truck with doctors, and she hadn't needed them much. She had no hearing aid, no glasses. She had a mouth full of teeth and a full head of hair. And her memory? Fantastic.

Ana talked about her many factory jobs. She worked at several of Boston's candy factories, she worked multiple shifts. At one point in her life, she would work one shift at the Necco factory and then run across town to spend a shift at Schrafts chocolate factory. She remembered which ones were clean and which weren't. She remembered her bosses and she talked fondly about "Irish Mary" who worked next to her on the line and who took the supervisor's abuse with stunning good humor. Ana worked the factories for nearly 50 years. She never married, and lived her whole life in her family home. She talked sadly about her sisters, now in homes or dead. She lived alone and liked coming to class to hear everyone's stories and to tell her own.

My favorite story was about the stock market crash of '29. Ana had been sent by her mother to the bank that October day to clean out their Christmas fund, which had $60 in it. The money was in Ana's mother's name and she had to meet with the bank president to get at the money. He gave it to her, warning her that she shouldn't break the Christmas fund. Within days, the banks had melted down. The panic had taken hold.

I love that story because it meant that the great crash was still in living memory. No longer. Marie called yesterday to say that Ana passed away early this week. I miss her.

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