3/13/1913 - 2/25/1999
By Tina Portelli
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
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
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,
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
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,
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
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.