Friday, July 25, 2008

A birthday tribute to my mother-in-law, Ann Knowles

This is a post for those who like family history and want to find ways to capture it in your own families. I originally sent it out earlier today. I have since updated it with an abundance of new (and more correct) information gleaned from a video Ann made in 2003, about a month before she died. I am so glad that Thad's sister Chris spent the time doing this with her. She spoke from notes she made, and had a whole pile of vintage photographs to hold up for the camera. After Thad read the post I wrote this afternoon, he suggested inviting his sister Sue over for a birthday party. He picked up chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream and raspberry sherbet, which was Ann's favorite. And afterwards, we watched the aforementioned video. I was scribbling notes as fast as I could, which was challenging since we had the lights off! OK, on to the updated post!


Today is the birthday of my dear mother-in-law, Ann Lillian Scerra Knowles. Ann was born in Rome, New York in 1935. Her father Cesare (Joseph) Scerra was the son of recent Italian immigrants, Albert (who had worked in the marble quarries in Catrone, Italy), and Raphaela. (I always wanted to name one of our babies Raphaela, but never got away with it!) At age 16, Joseph had to take care of his mother and seven brothers and sisters when Albert died in a car accident. Joseph eventually owned two restaurants, including the the very popular Greenbriar, which featured a soda fountain and jukeboxes. Her mother, Madeline Morgan Scerra, was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Madeline, a true entrepreneur, started a business making exquisite dolls and other hand-finished gifts which were marketed all up and down the east coast. One of her dolls was presented to Mrs. Harry S Truman and her daughter Margaret, for which they received a thank you note. Madeline also ran a gift shop downtown, later moving it to the brownstone townhouse next door to theirs and employing seamstresses to sew the doll dresses. Ann worked for her during her teen years. Madeline also made many beautiful things with her sewing machine, which we now own though it doesn't work anymore. (It's folded down into a cabinet.) I had thought that the lace doilies and lace-edged bed linens that we have were her creations, but Ann's sister Janet says they were most likely made by Raphaela. (One was so badly stained that I dyed it brown with tea to camouflage the spots.)

During her childhood, Ann remembers a cat whom she and her younger sister Janet dressed up in doll clothes and wheeled around in a baby carriage. She also remembers watching the robins outside the window and thinking they were chirping, "Sweet Ann! Sweet Ann!" Her Grandpa Morgan smoked cigars, and would blow smoke in their ears when they had an earache. Grandpa Morgan would walk to the corner market with his white wicker basket, and once walked all the way back again when he discovered he'd been given an extra nickle of change. Ann said that it was examples like this that instilled a strong sense of honesty in her as a child. She says she never cheated at games. She loved sports, such as tennis, softball, basketball, roller skating and ice skating. (Thad remembers playing tennis with her when she was four months pregnant with Sarah.) She remembers World War II because of the rations and blackouts, and that two of her uncles were drafted into the military. She loved to listen to the radio -- "a great tool for the imagination" -- her favorites being Jack Benny, the "Let's Pretend Show", the Metropolitan Opera, the Italian Hour and the Polish Hour. She also loved to read the Bobbsey Twins books and the Cherry Ames series about nurses. (We have many of her books now, too.)

Ann graduated from St. Aloysius School a year early (at age 16), and then worked as a nurses' aide at Rome Hospital where she was on duty in the nursery the night her younger brother Joey was born. The next year, she was admitted to the nursing school at St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse, which was operated by Franciscan nuns. She met Ted (I think at graduation in September?) and married him on May 25, 1957. They took their honeymoon in Europe, then immediately traveled on to Iraq, where Ted worked with the Army Corps of Engineers. Thad's sister Sue was born in Iraq in April 1958, before the little family moved to Iran (I am pretty sure about this), where Thad was conceived. Not wanting to have another baby in the Middle East, Ann flew back home to New York when she was six months pregnant -- and promptly got a severe case of appendicitis! If she hadn't been in the U.S., my dear hubby may not have survived that pregnancy! He was born in August 1959, and his next younger sister Elizabeth was born 21 months later in May 1961. Chris came along in August 1968, and finally Sarah in December 1974.
One interesting thing about Ann is that she didn't get her driver's license until she was 40. She also didn't like to fly because it bothered her ears, so she took the train for long distance trips. They did move around a lot, though. After Thad was born, the family moved briefly to Miami, then to the Bahamas for several years, then to a Massachusetts ski lodge for several more years, then briefly back to New York before moving on to Lawrence, Kansas, where Thad went to high school and college. They finally moved to Orlando in the early 1980s.

Here are two photos I found when I raided Thad's album. The little blonde haired girl is Sarah, who just had her second baby, Lyndsey, last week. (Her first little sweetie, Lauren, is just turning two!) And yes, that is an ostrich in the backround of the first picture. I hadn't noticed it but Thad pointed it out. I actually thought it was a horse at first glance!

This picture, from our wedding in November 1985, shows Thad and I with Ted, Ann, and Ann's parents Madeline and Joseph Scerra.

Ted passed away from a heart attack very suddenly in March 1997. The Downtown Orlando YMCA, where he had been an active board member, dedicated a small park area and monument to him a few months later. Ann and Thad are standing behind it in this picture.

Ann was first diagnosed with lung cancer just a few months after Ted's death. She had half of her lung removed. This was about the time of her 62nd birthday pictured here. (I think I have the year right, based on the photo album where I found it.)

Ann spent several years in remission until the cancer came back in late 2002. Fortunately, she was still in pretty decent shape when her youngest daughter Sarah got married in May. In June, she took a serious turn for the worse, and finally passed away at home in September 2003, just a few weeks after this picture was taken with Micah, Mary, Naomi and Lydia.

Ann was always very cordial, hospitable and generous to me, but she tended to be rather reserved in her affections. However, in the final few months of her life, she suddenly blossomed! She talked and talked and talked, and even apologized for not opening her heart wider to me in the nearly 20 years that I had known her. I distinctly remember her hopeful voice when, as she lay dying, she declared, "God has had MERCY on me!" And she meant it! He had become much more real to her on the threshhold of eternity. I have often said that even without her hair or dentures (which wouldn't fit anymore) she was more beautiful than I had ever seen her. Though difficult, those were precious months for us. Thad took care of her most of the last year before she died, working from her home, and I helped out when I could. It was a privilege.

In the video that Ann made about a month before she died, she said, "God has not forgotten me! What a wonderful gift I've been given!" She exclaimed, "I'm the happiest I've been in my life!" She said that she was totally at peace, and that she accepted whatever God's plan was for her. She was so grateful for the time she got to spend with her children. Her daughters traveled from various parts of the country to come for weeks at a time and lovingly care for her.

On my 40th birthday, just a few weeks before she died, she handwrote the most beautiful note on a card for me. I read it again this morning and cried. I am so grateful that for the last decade of her life, we lived only 7 blocks away. She was a treasure.

So Ann, Happy 73rd Birthday, and we'll see you in Heaven!

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