Being a Woman “d’un certain age”, as the French would say, brings on reflection and more attention to one’s roots. I have been thinking a lot about my maternal Grandmother, Richette Cianchette Frederick, lately. As I remember her, I marvel at the accomplishments and seemingly endless energy of this wonderful immigrant lady.
Richette was born in Italy, and came to America as a child around 1910. Like most women of that era, she married very young and had a large family. Her six children included my Mother, who is pictured here on the right. On the left is my Mom’s twin brother, Uncle Bill, and holding her twins is the beautiful woman who is my Nana, Richette.
Life in the 1920’s on a small farm in Maine was hard. My grandfather worked on a construction crew, so he was gone all week. This meant that my Nana had to take care of six kids, a farmhouse, and the farm hands that were needed to help with the animals and crops. So, there must have been daily baking of bread and cooking for all those people. There must have been washing and cleaning and mending and general child care. No dishwasher.No dryer. No freezer. No convenience foods. No air conditioning. Wood heat. The enormity of chores and food preparation is, to modern homemakers, unthinkable.Yet, she, and most of the women of her generation, had no choice but to get up each day and do what needed to be done. If I really think hard about what her days were like, I become tired myself!
In addition to raising all these children, keeping them clean and healthy, managing the farm and its workers, and taking care of a large farmhouse, she seemed to find time to create. She sewed, crocheted, tatted, and embroidered; all those needlework projects that exist from the early part of the Twentieth Century were made by Women like my Nana. She never sat down without something in her hands to work on. She would, in later years, be creating dresses and hats for her grandchildren’s dolls; or embroidering table cloths and crocheting potholders. I cannot remember her ever folding her hands or sitting in a completely relaxed manner. The word “chill” was not part of the vernacular of that era.
After her children were grown, she operated a hot dog stand on the Main Street of tiny Pittsfield, Maine. This small enterprise became well known, and there are still people today who tell me that their childhood memories include going to get a hot dog for a treat (if they had behaved well). I can recall standing by her side while she cooked onions on the grill and prepared the rolls, mustard, and relish, as the hot dogs steamed. It was all very exciting, and I was at eye-level with the grill as those fabulous onions gave forth the intoxicating aroma that lured in her customers.
My Nana was a World Class Cook. I can remember long tables of clamoring grandkids stuffing themselves with her spaghetti and meatballs, fabulous bread, and Italian cookies.There really weren’t any recipes….she just created everything from scratch and remembered how to do it all.
Richette was beloved by her family, her friends, and just about anyone who knew her. She never gossiped, complained, or indulged in self-pity. She was kind, soft-spoken, full of love and light, and laughed easily. This lady who came from the beautiful Abruzzo region of Italy made a new life in her adopted land. Pettorano and Sulmona were far away, and she insisted that her children speak English, not Italian. (We always knew that the topic was not for our ears if my grandparents spoke Italian around us; that was the only time the grandkids heard it spoken.)
I wish that my Nana had lived a longer life. She died of Cancer at the age of 63, and I was just thirteen. I was lucky to have known her at all, but the memories leave me wanting to have known her even better. She had an indomitable spirit, and extraordinary energy. I remember her singing as she washed dishes; she had a sweet voice and a good musical ear.She loved flowers, decorating for Christmas, Nat “King” Cole, and President Kennedy. She was a creative whirlwind.
Lucky me: I have some of her genes.