Josephine Baldessari Brandt
October 10, 1923 – December 14, 2013
A Recognition of a Simple Life
Newspapers and media are great for recognizing the achievements of famous and great men and women as well as those who are infamous. But they rarely recognize the lives of the majority of people who are significant in their own quiet way – the so-called “simple” people who live in historic times (and sometimes turn out to be quite courageous).
In our own quiet, frugal way, this post is dedicated to one of the quiet ones, my Mom, Josephine Baldessari Brandt.
In the absence of journalistic coverage and documented history, our family has stories. Some have been lost as the people telling them have passed on, others were forgotten or misremembered. Others live on as family lore.
For my Mom, her beginnings shaped the way she lived So I’m going to share a few stories with you.
A Real Coal Miner’s Daughter
Mom, born Josephine Baldessari, was a coal miner’s daughter a long time before Nashville gave that title any social cachet. She was born October 10, 1923, in the small town of Minersville, Pennsylvania.
Josephine Baldessari was the 8th surviving child of Emma Vegher Baldessari and Vincenzo Baldessari – both immigrants from the Tyrol region of Austria. It’s unclear how many other children did not survive infancy, the stories range from two to five, but the two surviving photos of Emma do show her to look tired.
When my mother was born, her oldest sister, also named Emma, 16, reportedly cried because she didn’t want to help take care of yet another baby. Years later, however, Mom did repay the favor by helping taking care of Emma’s children.
I don’t think it took her parents a long time to name her, but for much of her life her brothers and sisters simply called her “Baby.”
Josie’s mother, who would have been my grandmother, died of complications of pregnancy when Josie was a little more than a year old. According to the family lore, mother Emma started bleeding and a midwife was called. The midwife said she couldn’t help and told the family to call the doctor quickly.
The doctor was called, but he demanded payment in advance and they had no money in the house. The doctor then refused to come, so the mother of eight was forced to bleed to death without medical attention. Perhaps, being the 1920s, if they had been able to scrape together just a dollar, she might have lived. Thus was one inhuman aspect of living in a poor mining town.
Then Things Got Worse
The Great Depression started after the Wall Street Market Crash of 1929, 2 weeks after Josie turned 6. Her Dad was an injured coal miner who could only get work in the non-union mines, which were more dangerous and paid less. After the crash, demand for coal also plummeted.
According to family lore, her Dad, having little work, no wife and too many kids to cope with, was still a good man when he was sober, but he was rarely sober.
He did teach his children an appreciation of music – by drinking and singing loudly, late at night on the front porch – attracting an attentive audience of cursing neighbors.
So Mom was brought up not so much by parents but by her brothers and sisters and her Grandmother, known as Nona.
Many years later, when all her brothers and sisters died, she missed all of them terribly. Even in the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease, she would often call out the names of her brothers and sisters when she was afraid or needed help. She often confused me with her brother, Willy, who she must have been particularly close to.
As a child, Josie followed her brothers and sisters in studying in the Catholic school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. According to the family lore, the nuns were a strict lot of teachers. They reportedly forced the family to change their family name from Baldassare to Baldessari because (so they say) the nuns didn’t want any “bald asses” in their school. (This story may be apocryphal.)
Being in a poor mining town, most of the students were too poor to pay for their school uniforms. But they couldn’t attend the school without a uniform, so the nuns donated the uniforms to these students, but wrote and kept their names on the blackboard. Then, if one of the students acted up, the nun would point at their name on the board and chastise them for misbehaving when the nuns had gone to so much expense to provide them uniforms. Apparently, this practice rankled young Josie. So, about 40 or 50 years later, when she won some money in the lottery, she sent the school a check to reimburse the nuns the amount they paid for the uniforms for her class.
Still, teaching the town’s poor kids in a tough immigrant community, must have been a challenge. The nuns were not without mercy and my Mom remembers them giving very small Christmas gifts to her and her brothers and sisters, even if it was only an orange for each of them. During The Depression, that was a welcome present to the Baldessari kids.
Moving on Up
Finally, Josie left Minersville, first to live with her sister, Emma in Kearney, NJ, to help with her children. In the 1940s, she moved to her sister, Rina’s home in Brooklyn, where she she shared with her nephew, Elvin, who still is hale and hearty (so you can ask him how accurate my telling of events). Old photos of Josie and her family from this time often show Brooklyn factories, elevated railroads and lots of wooden fences in the background, but to a child of Minersville, Brooklyn must have seemed like the land of opportunity.
Naturally, she always remembered those lean days in Minersville although she tried to shield Beth and me from those types of concerns. Those days gave her a special gift of empathy, I think, with poor and lost souls, which served her particularly well when dealing with the poorest patrons who wandered in to St. John’s thrift shop (in Dover, NJ), where she volunteered for over 25 years.
A Fateful Day
Finally, one fateful day in 1948, Josie attended a dance in Manhattan, and met an ex-serviceman named Alvin Brandt (who lived across the Hudson River in Union City, NJ), and the two became inseparable for almost 65 years, marrying in 1950, having a wonderful son the next year, and an equally wonderful daughter three years later.
Moving on Out (to the Suburbs)
In 1959, Mom and Dad and Beth and I moved into our brand new house in the Woodland Homes development in Wharton, NJ. After growing up – so far – in Union City, this almost seemed like the country, with wide, uncrowded streets, and a park just a few houses away – which would flood after a heavy rain and fill with tadpoles we could chase. Small copses of woods hosted many afternoon adventures in a town where they even closed off steep streets to allow kids to ride sleds in the snow.
Unlike her own childhood, Josie brought up two children in a happy, healthy household. We also travelled together to lots of area zoos, parks, circuses, an occasional Broadway production, and took trips to visit other Brandt’s in Long Island and Baldessaris in Pennsylvania and Brooklyn and NJ. Mom and Dad would also take us for vacation trips to Niagara Falls, Washington, DC, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Howe Caverns, Luray Caverns and other attractions.
The Dolls and Not Driving
Also common with many who grew up in the Depression, she ended up collecting things during her later life. On Sundays, Mom and Dad would go for a drive and end up stopping at flea markets and specialty stores. It was rare that Mom didn’t come home with a new doll, a stuffed toy, or a knick-knack. Dad eventually built and wall-mounted a set of well-filled doll houses which are still viewable in our kitchen.
When my sister left home, Mom commandeered her room for her doll collection. The room eventually filled with so many dolls that Beth and I were alternatingly amused, in awe, and just plain stupefied when we would walk into the room. (If any of you know somebody who appraises dolls, please let us know.)
My mom never learned to drive. Once, when Beth got her Toyota with standard transmission, she took her to a parking lot on a Sunday, intending to teach Mom how to drive. But every time Mom let out the clutch and the car moved, she got scared, screamed, and stalled the car. They both ended up laughing hysterically, until the third time a patrol car passed slowly by and they decided that Beth should drive them home. I don’t think Mom ever tried driving again.
One of the things my sister and I both have vivid memories of was Mom doing chores around the apartment in Union City (and later, our house in Wharton) while playing the phonograph and singing along with her favorite singers – particularly Harry Belafonte, but also Roger Miller, Tennessee Ernie Ford and later, Englebert Humperdinck. In the past year, whenever we played an old recording of Harry Belafonte for Mom, we took turns remembering the words that she sang SO many times while we were growing up.
As a child, I even learned the Hebrew verse of Harry Belafonte’s version of Hava Nagila – which I remember singing while walking down the streets of Union City. It must have been a very odd sight – this little 5-year-old blonde, blue-eyed boy singing Hava Nagila (or some semblance of it) at full voice while walking down the street.
After moving, Mom eventually decided to join the Episcopal Church (being raised a Catholic), and we all grew up in St. John’s Church in Dover. (Fr. Brant was the rector when we joined. Later, he married a woman who became Jo Brant, so we had two Jo Bran(d)ts in the church. In an amazing coincidence, the other Jo Brant died only two days after Mom.
Both of my parents were active in the church, but doing different things. Dad was in the choir and also active in producing theater productions in the church, often directing modern morality plays in the chancel itself. Mom, much shyer, avoided theater, although I remember Dad – perhaps out of desperation – twisted her arm to take a minor role of just a few lines in one of the plays.
Mom preferred other volunteer activities. She started with teaching the pre-school kids, I think, in the church’s Vacation Bible School.
She later joined the Service Club, one of the church’s volunteer groups which did lots of projects for the church. She was a leader for the Girls’ Friendly Society, manned a table annually at the Holly Fair, and spent over 25 years volunteering for St. John’s Thrift Shop. I think she also made the occasional pasty, which the ladies of the church sold monthly to raise money for the church. (Pasties, a baked meat pie, were an homage to local Cornish miners who, apparently, were part of the local Episcopal tradition.)
Mom, also volunteered for the American Red Cross for blood drives for many years.
Working the Revolution
As late as the 1960s, it wasn’t unusual for women to stay at home to raise their family. When we first moved to Wharton, there were many other neighbors who were also raising families. This not only offered Mom a lot of companionship, including frequent coffee and conversation over various kitchen tables. Eventually, though, after Beth and I were older, she discovered that she could earn some money by watching neighborhood babies while their mothers went off to work. (This was before day care centers.) Mom and my sister once figured out that she had watched about 60 neighborhood kids over the years.
Besides her coffee klatches with neighbors, and the occasional party, Mom particularly enjoyed playing weekly sessions with her Mah Jongg partners and I think she was very proud when she got her own Mah Jongg set, which Dad bought her in New York City.
Like many mothers, she also embraced a variety of pets. In addition to her kids and neighborhood babies, she also helped raise (or put up with) various dogs, cats, hamsters, mice and even ducks.
The Duck Story
One of our ducks was so attached to her that when Mom would walk over to a neighbor’s for a cup of coffee and conversation, our duck, Cole Slaw, would jump her backyard fence and waddle over to the neighbor’s porch and sit there, quacking for her until she got up to leave and they waddled home together.
Another Duck Story
One morning my Mom heard the duck quacking outside. But not from the backyard. Then she heard a car horn honking. Throwing on her robe she looked out the window to see the duck in the middle of our street, blocking a driver apparently on his way to work. Rushing downstairs and out the door, Mom tried to chase Cole Slaw off the street, but the duck decided to run down the street instead of off. Meanwhile, the driver / commuter was laughing his head off at the site of a woman in robe and pajamas chasing a duck down the neighborhood. What we do for our pets!
Changes and Loss
Although she was small, she could also be tough – tough enough to be a cancer survivor.
As the neighborhood changed and the older parents moved out to smaller homes, many of mom’s friends left for other locations (mostly South and West). Her brothers and sisters eventually all died (two of them also from Alzheimer’s), all of which left Mom lonely.
After about 38 years away from home, I ended my musical career and left my job in Myrtle Beach and I was welcomed home by Mom and Dad. I thought the stay would be for a few months until I got a new job, but then I had to take over the cooking (both to preserve my eating habits and for fire safety) and then the laundry, and then gradually more. My sister, Beth, convinced me to stay full time, especially to look after Mom as she got more and more forgetful and less mobile. Finally, she needed help just eating. So a stay of a few months gradually grew into 6 years.
Alzheimer’s and dementia are particularly cruel diseases. Often as you grow old, your memories are what you have left of your life. As you slowly lose your memories, you slowly die mentally and physically. As so often happens with the disease, Mom forgot what was happening today and yesterday, but still maintained memories of her brothers and sisters and kept looking forward to them calling and coming to visit. Occasionally she got excited when she thought Alma or Rina or Emma or Willie were coming to visit that afternoon. It seemed too cruel to tell her that they were all dead – she’d have to mourn all over again. So we just said they couldn’t come that day.
The Last Days
Eventually, she didn’t recognize her own home, and sometimes didn’t remember her own family. We did have her 90th birthday party last October – and she enjoyed the company of her daughter, her daughter, Beth, her “favorite” son-in-law, Bob, and her husband, as well as myself, and particularly enjoyed the chocolate cake and birthday cards.
Thanksgiving, was our last family celebration together. Mom was even able to feed herself a bit and enjoyed the company and the celebration. After a sudden but short hospital stay, she stayed on home hospice until she passed away quietly, with her family by her side, during a snowstorm and just after we played her last Harry Belafonte Christmas album.
So, as we contemplate Josie’s life – it’s not to celebrate degrees and honors, or famous accomplishments or great inventions. Instead, it is to recognize her hard work to create what many people assume is a given: a normal life – raising two children and loving a husband when she had no parental role models to follow. She brought joy to others and tried her best to live a Christian life, and she was loved. It was this normalcy that was her greatest accomplishment and why we miss her so much, today.
Josie lived in complex times: a Great Depression, a World War, social upheaval and renewal, and amazing scientific advances. She also kept an eye on the eternal values, what was important to her and those she cared for. Perhaps it was what she taught us about living frugally, taking care of others, patience, teaching and learning, that was part of the inspiration for creating the Frugal Guidance blogs. We dedicate the Frugal Guidance 2 blog to her memory.
God bless you, Mom. Rest in peace.
This post is an expansion of the Eulogy the author gave on December 20, 2013.