01 January 1995

Everyone Called Her Nana: A Life

One of the first blog posts I ever put up on the Internet, via The Jackson Lab's old system of "personal" webpages.

People know you in Millinocket, Maine by your family name. "Isn't she a Hathaway?" "He's one of them _____________s" (fill in the blank; I'm no fool.) In this vein, I'm one of the Pinette girls, only two generations removed. My grandmother, affectionately called "Tut" or "Tutta" by nearly all the adults in her acquaintance, was one of the original Pinette girls of Millinocket. To the children on and around Penobscot Avenue in the 1970s, she was Nana.

This could be hard to take. My proprietary sense--heightened by the fact that I only had summers to spend with Nana, while my compatriots could see her year 'round--was challenged by the varied voices of those kids, peeking in the back door and asking Nana for a molasses cookie. Or just shouting "Hi, Nana!" as they rode by on a banana-seat bike, waving to her as she sat on the front porch. But I felt proud, too. I knew that their affection for her was only half of what I felt, and I was pleased that they knew as well as I did how special she was.

She was special from the start. Theresa Mary Pinette was born on September 28, 1896 in a farmhouse near Eagle Lake, Maine. Her hair was flaming red even at birth, family legend has it. More importantly, she was a precious, exact-lookalike replacement for the infant girl who had died the year before. Her parents, Elizabeth and Joseph Pinette, named her Theresa after this lost sister. Nana always reported this fact with gentle pride, conveying a sense of responsibility for the near-twin who'd preceded her.

After the birth, there was reason to fear that my grandmother might not make it, either; she was premature, and that autumn was unusually harsh. The Pinettes kept the newborn next to the woodstove, warmly swaddled in a box. I always imagine the life of the farmhouse swirling around her in those early days; the busy activities of her older siblings--Eddie, Percy, Nellie, Essie, Bill, and Diddy (Elizabeth)--enhanced by her presence. Their games were a little easier now that a new baby was in the house again.

Tutta's nickname came from Diddy, three years older and obviously having trouble pronouncing names. She grew up as the imp of the family, occasionally exasperating them but always amusing them. Diddy would despair that her sister was just young enough to escape chores; Nellie, the oldest girl, would chide Diddy calmly and hand her a broom. All the Pinette children had to pitch in; their parents took in boarders, and that increased the workload. I'm not certain when the family made the exodus south to Millinocket, but it was the home Nana remembered most strongly, and the place she attended school.

Tut was not particularly fond of school, as a concept. She was impatient with the process of learning; she liked palling around with the boys better, although Diddy was by far the wilder tomboy. "In the winter," Nana used to regale me, "Diddy would climb up to the barn roof and jump right off it into a snowbank." (As I grew older, Nana maintained that Diddy's uterus had "tipped" as a result of her exploits, rendering her barren. The image has never left my mind.)

Meanwhile, the older Pinette girls had discovered men. Nellie was plainer than Essie, but her smile was friendly and welcoming. Essie took pride in her beauty, and her creamy complexion is evident even in sepia-toned photographs. The above photo eloquently depicts the Pinette girls' dilemma: Essie (left) and Nellie are seated on a beautiful grassy knoll with their unidentified dates. All are dressed in their finest summer attire. Lush leaves shade the background. In the exact center of the photo, an arm slung around each sister's shoulder, is Tut Pinette. She looks about twelve. Her sisters' hair is contained in demure buns; Tut's obviously red locks are flying free from the effort to contain them. In contrast to the dress-up outfits that surround her, my grandmother is wearing what looks like a nightie, some brief white cotton playdress that allows her to climb a tree if she so desires. The gentlemen smile gamely, the sisters can't help but smile wider, and Tut's giving a hearty laugh.

School continued to bore Nana (she admitted to me once that she had leveraged her friendships with boys into a cheating system for getting classwork done: "I just wasn't good at things like math," she smiled, and that seemed like an acceptable answer). In tenth grade, she announced that she was quitting. Rather than resign herself to a life of domestic drudgery, she decided to go to work. She was a clerk in a Millinocket store for awhile, but ultimately found the best career for her breezy personality when the local Bell telephone office hired her as an operator.

She had already decided that she would be the child who would remain at home and care for her parents. (Her open good nature was always tempered with an overriding sense of responsibility, it seems.) The years passed easily; Nana loved her job and had a good circle of friends. She was the favorite Pinette aunt, because her single-and-working status allowed her to provide gifts and made her less careworn than her older siblings. Joseph and Elizabeth certainly benefitted from having their youngest around. She contributed to the finances of the house, and reassured them that they would not be alone as they grew older.

In 1928, while she worked the switchboard, a call came in that changed her life. In Millinocket as in any small American town of the day, switchboard operators had their fingers on the pulse. If someone new arrived, they'd be the first to hear the voice and spread the word. Nana heard a new male voice, and liked the sound of it very much. Knowing my grampy, he must have sounded by turns manly and impatient. And some tone in that voice must have suggested that good humor lurked within. Nana began a campaign of practical jokes, operator-style. Whenever Fred Arnold's voice came across her headset, she connected him to the wrong number. Poor Grampy encountered the parish priest, the undertaker, the fire department...anyone but the party he'd requested.

Nana's foolery attracted the Canadian emigrant's attention. (He'd come to Millinocket to work at the B & A Railroad station as a telegrapher.) When Fred and Tut finally met, they realized that she was eight years older than he. Tutta, ever the spark-plug, started fixing him up with the younger girls in her acquaintance. Fred returned from each date feeling impatient ("It's you I want to be with, Tut!"). After awhile, she got the message.

Their courtship was unusually long--four years. I've theorized that perhaps Nana was holding him at bay, feeling committed to her parents and the life she had made for herself. But Grampy ingratiated himself with the nieces and nephews (much as Nana had) and made it clear that he supported her intention to care for her parents. When they finally married in 1932, they set up house in the Pinettes' upstairs rooms.

Given Nana's age--36--they had only one child: a daughter, Maryann. They doted on her, and she did not disappoint. With her red hair and her amazing talent for playing piano, she was as recognizable as her mother was to the people of Millinocket.

Nana's life settled down with marriage and parenthood to consider. As my mother tells it, Nana was somewhat of an anxious parent, perhaps even more so after she left her parents' home and set up her own with Grampy. The older-parent, only-child situation played out much as it always does; my mother ultimately felt stifled in her small-town home, and left Millinocket as soon as she graduated high school. Maryann was gifted with her mother's youthful sense of adventure: she became a jazz musician in New York City. Nine years later, she started her own family: her son Sean was born in 1959, and I was born four years later.

As a grandmother, Nana was irrepressible and mothering at the same time. She made my childhood a joy, instructing patiently and always remaining optimistic. She taught me to knit, bake bread, make Saturday-night beans, sew on a treadle machine, bake molasses cookies, braid my hair, dress neatly, save money and shop enthusiastically, laugh uproariously, respect elders and love unabashedly. My mother shared many of these lessons with me, too, but Nana made companionship out of them. I spent every summer with my grandparents until I was 17 years old. Rarely was I bored, and always I felt safe. Having grown up in New York City, this latter was a wonderful gift to me.

Nana died on March 29, 1986. In her afterimage--memories, photos, even a precious recorded snippet of her voice--I still feel safe and hopeful, joyous and family-centered. Lessons you don't learn at school. I'm glad those who knew her in Millinocket sensed what she could teach. I'm glad she was mine to know.
Essie Pinette Gonya, me, and Theresa Pinette Arnold, 1974

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