The Last Survivor

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Sounds like a shipwreck, but in fact, the last survivor of my parents’ generation, Eleanora, rides comfortably in assisted living, Dover, Delaware. She’s 93, the only one in her generation with blue eyes, a rarety in Southern Italian stock, though her mother Josephine also had blue eyes and reddish hair. Ditto my sister, though her blue-green eyes don’t really count since our mother added German/Swedish blueness to the family mix.

My mother, the German-Swedish snob from North Dakota, used to opine that Charles of Anjou conquored the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This would account for the occasional blue-green eyes and blondish hair in my father’s Sicilian relatives. Ditto their family name: D’Anna. The “D – apostrophe” meant, according to my mother, noble birth: my father’s Sicilian relatives were part of the ancient conquering tribe. We used to laugh at her behind her back. She’d clutch at straws, even flimsy historical straws, to burnish her marriage into the “boot” of Italy.

At 93, Eleanora has outlived all that sillyness as well as all the relatives in her generation: my father and his three brothers (her first cousins), her two sisters, and my mother who married into the family. Not surprisingly she’s also outlived her adorable, tiny, blue-eyed mother Josephine, who took the unprecedented step of leaving her husband and coming to live with her two daughters in Washington, D.C. Women like Josephine, born toward the end of the 19th century, especially Italian, family-clad women, didn’t usually walk out on their husbands, but Josephine had grit. She transferred her clothes in small packages to her middle daughter near Pittsburgh, then one day bought a train ticket to Washington and never returned. All this happened when I was growing up in South Carolina, so removed from my father’s relatives in Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Washington, that I didn’t quite grasp what was going on. Talky Italians though they all were, they kept quiet about family troubles. Only now, when I sit opposite Eleanora in her little apartment or chat on the phone, do I hear the details.

If the choice were left to me, I’d nominate Eleanora herself as having the saddest, most vexxing yet the most jolly life. She was happy enough as a girl, growing up a few blocks from my father and his raucous, well-managed family. She enjoyed vigorous teen years as a jock before such a word was ever used for a girl. “You’ll find Eleanora on the basketball court or behind the candy counter,” teased her high-school principal. She loved chocolate then and now. She also told the family doctor who delivered her youngest sister (this means Eleanora must have been all of five years old) that no, thank you, she did not want to be a nurse. She planned to be a doctor just like him.

It’s just possible this might have transpired–her family had money enough to send the oldest daughter to college–but Eleanora met Dick from a Pennsylvania Dutch family when she had a summer job in Harrisburg. They married, Eleanora became pregnant shortly after Pearl Harbor, and Dick was drafted. Her baby, born a few weeks after I was, died within a month. In the difficult delivery, the obstetrician had used forceps which crushed the baby’s head.

With Dick drafted and sent to Okinawa, Eleanora moved back to Pittsburgh to live with her parents and took a part-time job in a department store. Dick’s letters came infrequently: he didn’t know if he could kill anyone, he wrote; then after many battles, he confessed that he had: the cries of buddies dying in the jungle drove him to mad revenge. He hoped she would forgive him. Eleanora and Dick were deeply Christian people: “Thou Shall Not Kill,” said one of God’s ten commandments. It wounded them both that war had forced them into such horrors.

One day in May 1945, shortly after the war in Europe was over, Eleanora took a streetcar across Pittsburgh to visit a friend whose husband was also still fighting like Dick in the Pacific. While she was gone, a stranger drove back and forth in front of the family home. As Josephine looked out the window, a stranger in a fedora got out and rang the bell. He had a telegram for “Mrs. Blumenstine.” Josephine looked the man in the eyes: “Is he dead, or pray God, only wounded?” The man shook his head. “Don’t leave her alone,” he advised. “Make sure someone is with her until you’re sure she’s through the worst.”

“When I came home near 11, I was surprised to find my sister and her husband and little boy there,” Eleanora recalls, “as well as the neighbors from next door. My mother opened the door. All she had to do was look at me and hand me the telegram. I didn’t have to read it. She put her arm around me, but I didn’t cry, not immediately. Instead I went straight into the living room and turned a photo of Dick and me to the wall. My mother stood beside me: ‘No,’ she said. ‘You have to get used to it.’ And she turned the photo around. For an hour I walked up and down outside with the neighbor, a friend of mine. Who knows what I said or did. I guess I was in shock.”

There was no body to bury, no evidence of Dick’s death. Only the report that his ship had been hit, and many on board were killed. It took her years to fully acknowledge that he was never coming back.

A few years later, friends urged her to find work in a hospital. “You wanted to be a doctor. Perhaps you’d feel comforted by hospital work?” Though a generation older than most other nursing students, Eleanora applied to a nursing program in Pittsburgh. The admitting matron was very impressed with her. And so, with the promise of a single room–“I’m not a girl anymore,” Eleanora explained–she began studying, graduated at the top of her class, and so took up what became her adult profession: health education, working for the American Cancer Society among other organizations. When her youngest sister Sadie and she moved in together and Josephine joined them, they created a family unit that sustained them until Josephine died at 94 and Sadie recently at 85. They all welcomed visitors from South Carolina. My father and mother who’d been their friends in Pittsburgh brought my sister and me to visit Cousins Eleanor and Sadie and Aunt Jo. With these loving, teasing women, my father relaxed into his best self; the talk was loud, silly, and continuous. A little wearing for those of us used to my mother’s Nordic quiet. But we all loved Aunt Jo, Sadie and Eleanor. They were our closest relatives on my father’s side.

Now, talking to Eleanora, recounting the old stories again and again, the sad and the silly, the deeply troubling and the highly political–Washington got in their blood; Sadie worked for years in the Office of the President–I feel embraced and welcomed into the fold. Not a lost sheep or a black sheep, but fully part of the woolly, sometimes blue-eyed, but mostly dark-eyed herd. Eleanora’s power of speech carries us along: she has the Italian gift of gab. And for many, a gift of longevity. To look at her, you’d never guess she was edging toward 100.

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