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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Great-Grandma Anna

We always called her Anna. As a kid I never thought much of it. Always Grandpa and Anna's; that is where we went on every visit home to Massachusetts. When I was older I realized that calling Anna, Anna, was a constant reminder to her and the family as a whole that she did not belong.

Anna was my great-grandfather's second wife. My grandmother was the only child he had with his first wife, who suffered from severe depression and killed herself when she was 31? and my grandmother was 11. My grandfather was still a youngish man and remarried several years after his first wife died. Needless to say it was a rough go of it with the petulant step-daughter, aka my grandmother.

My grandmother has always been a spoiled, self-centered, malicious person. After her father remarried she moved into the house of her maternal grandparents, who as it happened, lived directly next door to her father. There she lived at arm's length from her step-mother, and I am sure, knowing my grandmother, she found ways to make Anna's life miserable from that distance.

Marriage soon followed for my grandmother; she was 16 when she wed. Shortly after she produced the first of her 10 children. Her second child came along just as her step-mother and her father celebrated the birth of their one and only child, a son, her half brother.

My grandmother, although married, did not move far from her father's home, just across the road. There she continued to pop out kids, one every two years or so. Her children never called my grandfather's second wife grandma; she was always Anna.

When I was a kid, she was still Anna. We visited my great-grandparents whenever we were in Massachusetts. There were years when we did it in secret; years when my grandmother was on a renewed war path for her step-mother.

Anna made us cakes; she was famous for them. The cakes, she once revealed, came from a mix but it was the icing that sealed her iconic status as cake maker extraordinaire. One year, when my grandmother was on good terms with her step-mother, she came to visit my family in Dawson Creek, BC carrying a cake from Anna almost 5,000 km; that's how good it was.

Anna played straight to my great-grandfather's walking side-show and boisterous personality. I heard her exclaim “Bob” and wave her hand in front of her face in disbelieve too many times to count.

My great-grandfather was a loud talker. You never had to guess if they were at home; you could hear his voice clear as a bell several houses down the street. As a result, Anna lost her hearing at a relatively young age and was forever asking you to repeat what you said. Losing her hearing was probably one of the many sacrifices she made while living with my great-grandfather.

Walking into Grandpa and Anna's house was like passing through a time warp. They had an old fridge from the 1950s, a old ringer washer and transferred their milk into the old bottles from the dairy that had belonged to my great-great-grandfather Brown; the father of the first wife. So not only did Anna live in a house that was stuck in the 50s she also lived in the shadow of her predecessor in many ways. One can not begin to think how difficult this must have been.

When visiting with Anna, she was always overly talkative about her son, Bobby, and her only granddaughter, Jennifer. In retrospect, she may have had to circumscribe her world to such a small sphere in order to deal with the ghosts of her husbands' past.

It was only in later years that I actually got to know Anna; that is after the all consuming presence of my great-grandfather had disappeared from her side. When I moved home to the United States in 2007 I visited Anna in the nursing home once a week; faithfully. She lived there, sharing a room with another elderly lady since 1999 when she and my great-grandfather were in a bad car accident, forcing them to leave their own home. It was as the world was watching the twin towers come down that I was standing in my bedroom in my apartment in Bangkok that the phone rang my aunt told me that grandpa had died.

Visiting Anna without my grandfather gave me cause to learn more about this woman that had always been a fixture in my life but had never played on the main stage. The most amazing thing that I learned was that her name wasn't Anna. When I first came to the nursing home to visit her and asked for Anna Whitney, the nursing staff looked at me strangely and then figured out I meant So-and so Whitney. I regret to say that I can't remember what her real name was. After 35 years I just couldn't transplant the new name into my brain.

Upon that first visit I asked her, “Hey Anna, why are they calling you such- and -such?” That is when I found out that that was her real name.

She was born to a Polish immigrant family. She had three sisters, one of them was her twin. At home they all spoke Polish. When she went to school when she was 4, she distinctly told me she went to school at 4, the teacher didn't know how to say her Polish name and called her Anna. It stuck for the next 85 years and it was only when she was moving towards the end of her life that she reclaimed her proper Polish name.

Being Polish, she suffered from the stereotypes and derision that people of Polish descent were prone to. And there was none more likely to hurl racial epithets at her than my grandmother; usually behind her back or at least I never saw her say it to her face but I wouldn't put it past her. Which is why it was extremely odd that during the nursing home years my great-grandmother had one other frequent visitor; my grandmother.

I often was visiting Anna when my grandmother would come, they would have a nice visit but on the way out my grandmother would usually find something negative to say about her step-mother. Maybe that is why she went to visit her; she couldn't give up her old nemesis.

When I started to visit Anna at the nursing home I made a point to change my old habits as best I could and call her grandma. After all the woman had been through, that is the least bit of respect I could show her. She knew both of my children (although she didn't always know us when we came to visit-she suffered from some dementia but not too badly) and they knew her as Great-great grandma. When we would visit her in the lounge area or in the dinning room I made a point to let people know that these were her great-great grandchildren visiting her and she would beam with pride.

In her room at the home she had a few toys and a rocking chair. The rocking chair she had gotten from her father as a gift when she was 3, now my daughter played with it. Our visits were short but they made a difference and I got to hear some old time stories.

This morning I found out that Anna died last night. I am saddened to hear this news but glad that I have this much to reflect on about her life. It wasn't easy but I always remember her having a smile on her face.

My cousin posted her obituary.

TEMPLETON – Jennie A. (Zisk) Whitney, 92, formerly of 350 Baldwinville Road, Templeton, died peacefully Tuesday evening, April 26th in Baldwinville Nursing Home, with her family at her side.

She was born in Gardner on May 7, 1918, daughter of the late Anthony and Mary (Zielenska) Zisk and had lived in Templeton for most of her life.

Jennie was a member of Holy Cross Church in East Templeton. She loved flowers and playing bingo. Her greatest enjoyment came from spending time with her family, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren.

Her husband of 54 years, Robert A. Whitney Sr, died in 2001. She leaves two children, Robert A. Whitney Jr and his wife Carol of Templeton and Beverly L. Whitney Haley and her husband Henry of Templeton; a brother Richard Bubnel of Gardner; a sister, Phyllis Carpenter of Gardner, as well as many grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great grandchildren, nephews and nieces. Two sisters, Sophie Zisk and Regina Mahoney, predeceased her.

Funeral services will be held Friday, April 29th at 10 A.M. in Stone-Ladeau Funeral Home, 343 Central Street, Winchendon. The Rev. Joseph Jurgelonis will officiate. Burial will be in Greenlawn Cemetery, Baldwinville.

Calling hours in the funeral home will be Friday, April 29th from 9 to 10 A.M. preceding the funeral.

Memorial donations may be made to Baldwinville Nursing Home Residents Activities Fund, PO Box 24, Baldwinville, MA. 01436.

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