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3/13/1913  -  2/25/1999

By Tina Portelli


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This story is about a woman who deserves to be written about, and not

forgotten. She was not famous, perhaps unique for her time, by no means

conventional,  A spirit to be shared with me.


We have proved that friendship has no age limit, that motherhood and

daughterhood are just words that can apply to anyone under the right set of

circumstances.  Thirty-six years apart, we could have been the same age,

somewhere in between.  An old rotary hooked up to a cell, making the

ultimate connection.


These were our simple circumstances????????????????????


We had been neighbors since 1964, our houses directly across the street

from each other.    We had not been aware of each others existence.    It

was not until 1969 when I graduated High School and got a job as a clerk in

the Brooklyn Public Library that we met for the first time.  She was my

boss!  My bossy boss.


Frances was the head of the periodical department and I was hired as a

clerk.  It was when I mentioned her name to my mother that I became aware

that  we were neighbors.  She and Chris were acquaintances.  Both women,

Frances and my mother were private people, hello, how are you, none of my

business,  thank you, goodbye.   Neither was interested in neighborhood

drama.  You never saw either one of them holed up in a group stoop scene

with our inquiring neighbors.  My kind of girls, that  Chris and Fran.


Who would have ever guessed the future.


At first, and for the few years at the library, we were really indifferent

to each other.  I was more interested in flirting with the boys in the

stacks than in books.  She was starched to the neck and never cracked a

smile.  I remember thinking, has see ever seen a naked man.  That was me

being a sarcastic teenager.  She was always catching me, busting me,

sending me back to my desk.    I knew this was not the career for me and in

time I would leave.  And I did. It was a short lived career. I wanted to

escape before the library pod  took control and I would wind up in starch

as well.  No thank you.  Next stop, private industry, NYC.



1972, Got married, left the neighborhood, had other jobs, made new friends.

 While I was busy, Fran was busy too, retired at fifty-five, she got

married for the first time in her life.   She and her husband  lived in her

same house and regretted taking the step.  Freedom, she later realized, was

more important than anything she could think of.


So, here I am planning my wedding.  My mother invites all our neighbors to

the wedding, including Franie.  Well, wouldn't you know, she has a vertigo

that day and doesn't come.  Why am I not surprised.  It was only after I

really got to know her that I found out it was true.  And she did send her

husband along with a good wedding gift. Point for her!


So, here I am again, 1978, divorced, came back home, made one new friend,

my best friend.  We meet again under a completely different color sky in a

mellower climate on a stoop in Brooklyn, Hi neighbor, Hi Fran.  It was the

same as with my mother, just hello, goodbye, meaningless pleasantries, no

big deal.


Now, I have many friends, mostly my age, work associates, childhood

friends, new tenants, boyfriends.  I was not in the market for any new

ones, and I already had a mother.  So what happened???????


My mother died, Frans husband died.


It was then, 1984 that we started to talk, outside, alittle more each time.

 I never knew how much she liked my mother, respected the way Chris always

stoop up for me to the neighbors gossip.  Yes, I was a topic alright.

 Divorced, free and uninhibited.  Entertainment for some real observant



Francis was not a gossip, she was a libertine.  And so am I.   I never

dreamed an old woman, especially from this neighborhood could ever relate

to me in any way, shape or form.  Not being the conventional young lady

this place is use to seeing, I bask in pleasure in being different.  I

never thought Ms. Starch had walked the walk, talked the talk. Wow, it was

a slow coming revelation.


Our relationship developed so gradually, small conversation in passing. I

started to look forward into bumping into her.  She had my attention, she

was different.    Always alone, always put together so well, so educated,

well spoken.  Not the dribble that falls out of the mouths of the fish

wives around here.  My one regret is that I did not take the time to get to

know her long ago when we worked together.  It wasn't  the right  time, we

weren't ready.  It is true that every event has its time and purpose.  Now

it was our time, and I knew the purpose.


This was a woman I could identify with, who I wanted to get to know.  I

would learn from her.  I wanted to be like her when I grew up.  Tall order.

 I liked her style, the way she lived her life.  The way she saw things

made sense to me, we could talk about a million things.  I always wondered

why I had so much in common with an 80 year old.  I've always been such a

swinger, go figure.


I was raised on praise.  Fed praise from mother, aunts, grandmothers,

cousins, but my main source was my mother.  I loved the light she shined on

me, always.  When she died,  I was in the dark for what seemed forever.   I

needed that light badly.  Fran was my new lamp.


Fran never had praise, she never had a mother or children.   These are

things you learn about people on the next level of friendship, its called

intimacy.  Well, you could have bowled me over with a feather.  I loved

telling my stuff, but never thought she would share hers with me.  We both

had a void in our life, and we were there to help each other.  50-/50, only

I got the better deal..


This is a woman who just made me want to do things for her.  The joy for me

of doing small things to make her happy is unparalleled to any I have



It amazes me that as close as I was with my mother, we never reached that

level of intimacy, always boundaries, mother & daughter.  But, with Fran we

were really friends.  And to be friends with someone that old is a strange

experience.  Especially when they start talking about sex and men, theirs,

not mine!


Being divorced twenty-three years, I have been quite happy and at peace for

the first time in my life. I like dating and have been in and out of

relationships. Marriage is not my goal.  I enjoy being single, being free.

  It was always important to me that a man was somewhere in the scheme of

my weekly activity. Francis always said the same thing to me "Tina, there

is nothing like your freedom" .  She married at 55 for the first time to a

man she liked.  She thought she was making the right move,  a travel

companion for her old age, company.  However, she was wrong.  The mere

presence of this man in her space suffocated, stifled and annoyed her. She

did not enjoy being married.  She had been single far too long.  It was too

late for her.   The poor guy only lived twelve  years, so at sixty-seven

 she was free again; except, she had started to inherit the  aches and

pains of aging, which hampered her regained status.   The knees were going

and getting around wasn't going to happen.  From that point, she made

limited trips but mostly stayed home.


The thing that amazed me was the complete and total acceptance of her

situation.  She spend many, many days and hours alone.  And never did she

complain.  Her interests were many, enough to sustain her in her situation.

 It was the first time I had witnessed an elderly person alone yet not

complaining all the time.


Yes, she had family, but they did not live close.  The neighbors were a

bore to say the least.  She took pleasure in corresponding with the many

acquaintances and ex-co workers from the library days.  She was well liked

and respected and I could tell that by her mail.  Always getting cards and

note from everyone, from everywhere.  My pursuing paid off in that she

became my mentor.


You have to respect a person who knows who they are and what they want.

 The quirks old people develop will either piss you off or amuse you.

 Neither one of us are "children people, instead we take our pleasure from

the animal kingdom.  She was a dog person, I am a cat person, big

difference.  She hadn't owned a dog in along time, but loved them just the

same.  She donated more money to animal  shelters than required by any one



On some Sundays, her niece and nephew  would "stop over" unexpectantly with

their three kids, thinking how happy they were making their aunt..  HELLO.

  Fran could not wait until they were gone,  the chaos rattled her to the

core.  People can be clueless.   The best intentions of others can turn out

to be the biggest annoyance to the recipient.  But, she dealt with it, for

awhile,  and afterwards, lock-down and recover.     As she started getting

older, she would just tell them to stay the hell home.  They attributed

this attitude to old age.

Eccentric is a word that we label people who do their own thing.  That's

how many people viewed Frances.  Not me, I thought she was a hoot..  Good

for you lady.    The funny thing is that I was the only one she really let

in her life, really.    No one knew the depth of this woman.  I was it.

   She compressed a lifetime of struggle, disappointment and hurt and

recycled it into nine blessed years of happiness and friendship with a

person who really appreciated her and loved her.  It was the first time in

her life she felt truly important. She knew she could trust me, she just

knew me.  It was a gift I wanted to give.  That gift had been given to me

all my life by my family and I wanted to share it too.  I never thought the

gift was for me, but is was.


The gift to see life, real life, not superficial drama.  To put things in

perspective.  She did that for me.  She was a walking self help book.  My



She was so good at reading people.  All I had to do was give her a summary

of a situation and she could tell me the end result.  She used to call me

her angel, I used to call her my witch.  She was never wrong.  "Hey Witch,

how are you today?" she would reply, just smarten up, would you.


Francis was a caretaker by nature, brothers, step mother, half sister,

nieces, nephews, animals.   She gave of herself without reserve.  Without

the need for reconigition or reward.


It took her years getting through to me how not to over react to people and

situations.  To observe, take it home, think on it and then act.  She

finally succeeded in teaching me to be "cool".  This woman should have been

on Oprah.  Talk about tough times and overcoming pain, she had seen plenty.


Her natural mother died when she was six.  Her family was split up among

relatives.  She was separated from her father and siblings to live on a

farm in PA with an aunt and uncle.    She was treated badly, never shown

any love, a work horse for the farm.  Years later, she was re united with

her family when her father remarried a wonderful woman.  However, her role

as a teenager was surrogate mother.  She had the responsibility of her two

younger brothers while mom and dad were enjoying the newness of marriage

and the non responsibility of real parenthood.  From a farmhand to a full

time nanny,  no childhood, no teenage life.  She went straight from being

born to being old.


She took care of those brothers for their entire life, until they died.

 Her husband, until he died, her stepmother, until she died and her nieces

and nephews until she died!


He books were her companions. There was no money for education and she

would have faded into the woodwork, had she not been strong   in  mind and

spirit. She probably sensed that she would have to make it on her own and

she was 100% CORRECT.  She did not take the easy route, which she could

have, marriage and an extra paycheck.  She knew there was more to life than

the kitchen.   She pulled herself up, dealt with reality and managed to

educate herself, her ticket to freedom.  How could I not be inspired by

this woman?




It was the emotional deficit in her life that opened my heart to her. I had

never known such coldness in my own life.  I had a creme puff existence and

there I was, angry because my mother died when I was 35.  It took  her

story to make me feel ashamed of complaining.    At least I enjoyed my mom

for 35 years and experienced a mothers love.


Of course even good friends disagree once in awhile. It was the afterlife

thing.  No way does she believe this.  You had to prove it to her or forget

it.  Now, even I know you should never talk politics or religion with

anyone, however, it was important to me to get her to believe.  Especially

at her age, close to the end.  Believing in the afterlife took the fear of

dying out of me; I wanted to do that for her.  I know she believed in

something because when she was able to get around in earlier days, she used

to attend mass.  I know she was intrigued by Buddhism, which I really found

unusual.  She didn't seem the type.      Well, as it turns out, I now study

Buddhism and understand the fibers that held this woman together.


Charlie Rose, he was her man.  She could be dragging her ass all day, but

at 11:00PM, channel thirteen, period.  She was very keen on current events

and  political issues.  She knew more that I did without ever leaving the



Sometimes we would call each other three  to four times in an evening to

discuss some nature programming, documentary  or Opera that  was on.  And

that voice, like  mans, always sounding pissed off, very deep and throaty.

 She always answered the phone like you were annoying her, but when she

would realize me, her tone completely changed.  That was for me, because

she loved talking with me.  I even got her to get an answering machine.


Birthdays- She would pretend they didn't mean anything to her. That's a

lie.  It's just that no one ever paid attention to her birthdays before.

 When I figured this out, I said, OK.  So for the last five years of her

life we shared a cup of coffee and a birthday cake for two.  The first time

I showed up at her house with a birthday cake I could see that look of pure

genuine joy on her face.  I would bring her a small shopping bag full of

her favorite things, note cards, books, candles, nothing expensive.  She

was easy to buy for because of her sense of value.  She valued intelligent

and not frilly useless items.  I valued her emotional appreciation.


It was the same with the food.  Now, she could certainly cook for herself

and she did, but there were some special dishes that only I could cook that

she loved.  My squash pie was her favorite, finger licking good.  She would

devour the whole thing in one sitting and complain about it the entire next

day.  Her second favorite were the mozzarella sandwiches (panne in

carrozza) dipped in egg and fried.  Just watching her enjoy this stuff made

my day.  I don't think it was the food itself as much as the fact that she

knew I cooked it for her.  She used to call me her angel. (with the horns!)


The Farm-  That's where she was shipped by her father when her mother died.

 Frances was seven and her childhood was gone before it even had a chance

to start.  Her aunt and uncle got the most for their room and board out of

her.    The only friends she had were a horse and a pig.  From that

experience bloomed a great animal lover.  Throughout her life she was kind

to and supportive of many dogs, cats and shelters.  She found her solace in

her pets, not just in her youth but in her old age as well.


She was brought back from the farm when her father found a bride.  Living

in a household with her two younger brothers, she became their surrogate

mother, while her stepmother had two children of her own, and a new baby on

the way.  So now she is spending her teen years raising kids and not

enjoying the promises of being a teenager.  It seems everyone took and no

one gave.  Its no wonder she enjoyed her senior years alone, to finally

enjoy some peace.


You think we had nothing to talk about, well, we had a few, My career

My men, Her men, My dad, Diets ( hated them  and food substitutes)

College bakery layer cake, Gay Men, Not getting married, Freedom, Money,

Independence, Family, Friends, Opera, Charlie Rose, Animals, The farm,

Her sister


I call her an old bag.  She laughs. She inspires me so. She is advanced in

her liberal ideas for a woman of her time.  She is the most independent

woman.  Worldly, educated, and interesting.   A real humanitarian.  She is

so good to me, picks me up when I'm down.  She see's a lot of potential in

me , and I hope I prove her right. My mother was the only other person in

this world who looked at me that way.  Like I was the best thing since

slice bread.   I only wish our age gap was less then  I could spend more

years as her friend.  I delight in treating her good.  I do it to prove to

myself that you don't need kids in your old age.  Just be good and true to

people and they will be there for you.  She has no children, yet she had

me.  I treat her better than some daughters treat their real mothers.  And

I did it because I wanted to, not because I had to.   And I gladly did it

because she truly appreciated  my just spending time with her.  I like

doing small things for her.  ( I hope someday, someone will want to do that

for me. The thing we have most in common is that we both love the arts, and

we both like our solitude.  We are two peas in a pod.  So you see, a friend

is a friend at any age.


I needed a cat favor from her, which turned into giving her my cat Smokey

for keeps.


I had gotten  a new job with Retex in June of 1996, and I had to travel to

Connecticut for two months.  I need someone to cat - sit for Smokey.  She

was my last surviving cat. (Sandy died in February) Anyway, the only person

I thought of to care for the cat was Frances, and although  she has always

been a dog person, she's an  animal lover just the same.  She agreed to do

it for me.  I brought the Cat, lock, stock and barrel to her.  Set

everything up in her house, litter pan, food, etc.  The first two ot three

days the cat wouldn't come out from under the bed.  Frances just went about

her business, not concerned.  When Smokey finally made her appearance, she

became the lady of the house.


Frances took to this cat so much, like a fish takes to water, that what

started as a loan of a cat became a keep of the cat.  I HAD TO GO OUT AND

GET MYSELF A NEW CAT!  Darn  cat doesn't even look at me when I visit, and

I fed this fat thing for seven years!


It turned out to be a real love story for them both.  It's the best thing

for Frances, Smokey has enhanced her life, and the cat is happy because she

has company all day, and with someone almost her own age. (Eighty-four Cat



 By the time the end came for her, she believed.  It was especially

important for me to get her to that point.  I would always tell her that

someday she would be with the mother she lost as a child, and the brothers

and husband too.  I never let up, and I saw the payoff in the end.  I was

with her when she died and she was not afraid.  It was a privilege for me

to walk her home.  I hope I am as lucky in death and have someone walk me



Frances died on February 25th, 1999.  I was the one she called, I was with

her when she closed her eyes.    I helped her leave her house to go HOME.


My message is, do not discount old people.  They are valuable and need

love.  They can your mirror into the future.  We are all making that trip.

Show compassion and you and you may find that compassion comes back to you

when you step up to that plate.