My Aging Role Models

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel..iPad
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel…iPad shot

Today was well, a bust…a few hours off, I thought I’ll pick up a few sweaters at the mall.  First, I needed to eat…glancing around for something delicious and not too lethal, I chose, macaroni and cheese pizza.  What can I say, I was hungry.

 On to the sweater hunt:  I envisioned some short, cropped, plain things with maybe a tiny bit of flare.  All I found were long sweaters with lots of gold lame intertwined.

Long sweaters make me look older and shorter than I like.  In fact, it feels like everything makes me look older and shorter and well, fa    than I want to.

And that is where reality hits…how to fit into my new culture, the over 50 set.  I am looking for role models and not having a whole heck of a lot of luck.  The Hollywood gals are hitting the Botox and in a Google search for role models over 50, I  saw 10 women who are keeping their Olympiad bodies no matter what!

I want to find those women, like me, who are struggling, but living well, with the whole gaining shrinking thing.  Graceful, laughing women…the Judi Dench’s of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  It is hard to do.  But I’m looking…

  • I thought Hillary Clinton made a nice comeback recently, rested, loosing the ponytail, she might still be President one day.
  • I loved Nora Ephron, I’m keeping her on my role model list forever.  She laughed about aging and she looked graceful doing it, but she laid it bare in her last two books.  She finally demystified for me all the various names for the shapes our necks can take in I Feel Bad About My Neck.
  • My Aunt did a pretty good job of aging, I never thought she would. At about 83, she said somebody should write a book on aging, it sure ain’t for sissys, was the title she suggested.  She’s almost 90 now.
  • My friend Jean, she is a role model, I think she is about 85 and two years ago wrote me in her holiday card…I haven’t slowed down and I don’t intend to. 
  • My Aunt Floss, gone now, she was a good role model:  up to her dying day, I could hear her say…there ain’t an old maid in this country who has had as good a life as me.

 And so it goes, the role model search for aging.  I didn’t realize I needed one. When the gold lame glittered back at me in mirror after mirror today, it hit me I need clothes and the corresponding people that speak to me about how in heck I’m  to do this whole graceful aging thing.


Aunt Carmella Tress…not just an old lady in an apron

Aunt Carmella Tress, not just an old lady in an apron

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The toast is warm and my Aunt Melia invites me to sit down in the little breakfast nook she set up for us. It overlooks my  grandmother’s garden: roses, poppies, and plants along the viaduct.  We wait for the water that will fill the orange ceramic kettle.   Aunt Melia fusses over girly things like the fragrant orchid corsages she buys for Easter Sunday.  One day I went with my grandmother and Aunt Melia to the podiatrist.  Before the cab arrived, she nestled her hat into her hair with bobby pins and splashed sweet perfume on her wrists as she yelled down the apartment steps to my grandmother, “Coming Rose.”
A frail woman, sick from heart disease in her last years, placing the parsley strategically on the serving plate, she began to fade as my childhood waned. In 1971, when I was ten, Aunt Melia collapsed on her living room floor. Grandma surmised she came to a quick end as she reached to turn off the Late Night Show with Johnny Carson.

40 years later, I look at my Aunt Claire’s old newspaper clippings and photographs, and I see evidence of the artistic life Melia lived.

Aunt Melia or Carmella Tress (Teresi) was my paternal grandmother’s younger sister and our lives crossed paths for ten years. My aunt was born in 1895. Aunt Claire, her niece, filled me in on most of Carmella’s life and the ephemera makes it real. According to Aunt Claire, my grandmother, Rose, insisted Carmella get voice training. They were cousins of the famous soprano, Nina Morgana, Enrico Caruso’s student. Nina Morgana sang roles at the Metropolitan Opera where Carmella was invited to sing; her father, Anthony Teresi would not let her go.

Aunt Claire told me that Carmella went to Elmira College. There is a note on a newspaper photograph in the accompanying slide show that states Carmella Teresi studied with Mrs. Ray Herrick. The librarian at Elmira College, Mark Woodhouse, answered an inquiry about Carmella and said they had no records of her enrollment.  However,  Clara Herrick taught at Elmira College then.

The newspaper clipping entitled Local Singer in Florida includes  a note that says my Aunt possessed a coloratura soprano voice. There are other clippings about this, citing that 10,000 people attended this Easter Sunrise service in Miami.

In addition to being a songstress, I know Aunt Melia worked at Artistic Greetings in Elmira NY. At Artistic Greetings she hand painted cards. She lived above my Grandfather Castellino’s store and visited her brother, Joseph Tress, in Florida. I do not know if she worked at Artistic when the 1940 US Census (available on the Internet) listed her as a worker.

One of my last memories of Aunt Melia was driving along NY Route 54 between Hammondsport and Penn Yan, my mother was at the wheel and it was a warm, rain drenched day. The greenery was popping out against the backdrop  of monochromatic grey.

“Katherine,” said Aunt Melia to my mom, “this is one of the most beautiful places in the country, and it is right here.”

I thought Aunt Melia never made it beyond New York and Florida, however, there are pictures and postcards that show   Carmella took many trips including one  to California. Many were with my adopted Aunt, Margaret Riebel. In addition  I do know that Aunt Melia and Aunt Margaret were members of the Catholic Daughters of America, often gathering things to send abroad to missions.

Back in 1970s, children went to calling hours and funerals, even though we were ten and younger. My first meeting with death and the Catholic rituals around it, the solemn waking hours, the prayer before the corpse, and the last car ride to the cemetery.  One night soon after,  my four siblings and I gathered in my grandmother’s kitchen, and I thought, in my ten-year old brain, “Aunt Melia really didn’t die, she is just in the other room, and that is why Grandma called us in here.” My denial met with a small sum of money, “a little remembrance” said Grandma.

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