Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Agnes Gertrude Quigley

One hundred years ago today, Agnes Gertrude Quigley celebrated her first birthday. She had not been expected to live to the first anniversary of her arrival in the world, let alone reach the esteemed age of 87!

"Gertie" was the youngest of three girls born to John Francis and Mary Ellen (Gilman) Quigley. She was born in the part of Boston known as the West End. The West End was an area of Boston to which many Irish moved (from the North End and Fort Hill areas) in the 1860's and 1870's before putting down roots in the celebrated Irish stronghold of "Southie."

She never got to know her father, because he died the same year she was born. Her mother found work in a hotel as a waitress to support the three girls and her own mother, Catherine, who lived with them. When Gertie was in her teens, her mother and grandmother also died, leaving the girls to fend for themselves.

From the stories that Gertie often told, the young Quigleys went to work as soon as they finished school. One job, in particular, she spoke about often - at Schraft's Chocolates. Gertie trained as a chocolate dipper, but unlike her sister, Mae, the constant smell of that sweet treat often made her sick (and did for the rest of her life.) So, she quit her job at the chocolate factory and took up her mother's trade of waitressing.

Gertie loved her job as a waitress. She was trained in the proper methods of serving and clearing food and all that goes with it. This expertise led to adventures in many places, waitressing in posh hotels, just for fun. Some of the places she often spoke about were Chicago, Florida and New York. She even boasted that she had the pleasure of waiting upon a U.S. president!

One of Gertie's jobs led her to Oswego, New York, on the southern shores of Lake Ontario. It was there that she would meet John Harold Smith, a red-headed Irishman who was the love of her life. Her happiness would not last very long, because "Harold" died a couple of years after they were married. However, Gertie loved her adopted town of Oswego and lived there the rest of her life.

She lived alone in an apartment which had been created on the top floor of an old victorian-era house. Despite her age, she would climb up and down those steep stairs to go to work and take her beloved dog for a walk.

Gertie worked her whole life. Even past the age of 80, she was waitressing at a restaurant in Oswego. One day, she noticed a little box next left on the table by one of her "regulars." Scooping up the box, she charged out the door after the man. When she tried to give it to him, he refused it, telling her it was her tip. Inside the box was an antique diamond ring. The story he told was that his sister's house had burned to the ground and all that was left was the jewelry. As he had no need for it and because Gertie had been so good to him over the years, he wanted her to have it! (As an addendum to the story, I received that very same ring for my 21st birthday from Gertie.)

Living in Oswego is not easy in Winter. My Dad always worried about his aunt living up there all alone in such weather. But, Gertie was made of tough stuff. After one huge storm, my father called her to find out how she was doing. Her reply was that she was a little irritated, because she'd had to get a ride on the snowplow to get to work!

Every year, though, Gert would make the trip by bus from Oswego to Boston to be with family for the Christmas holidays. For the whole visit, we would hear countless re-telling of the stories she had told the year before. Year after year, we heard about her life with Harold, her adventures with her friend, Annie, places she'd been and things she'd done. The stories would be relayed in a voice like gravel and would be puncuated by occasional belches from the beer she enjoyed so much. She was quite a character.

I was probably the only one of the nieces and nephews who found the stories fascinating. Around 1980, I planned to tape her next recounting, but Gertie didn't come to visit that next year...or ever again. She died in 1983 at age 87.

Every year on this day, my thoughts and prayers go heavenward to Gertie. She was a woman of extraordinary strength and resilience with a voice of gravel, but a heart as soft as well-worn cotton. So, on this April 10th, Happy Birthday Aunt Gert! You are missed.

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