Her Life

Eleanor Jean Defazio Hodgkins (1934–2009)

Eleanor Jean Defazio Hodgkins's life reminded everyone who knew her that there is goodness at the heart of things. When she spoke she spoke well, but her actions spoke so much better even than her words. She was our mother, but she was more than a mother: she was a daughter of great loyalty, courage, and kindness; she was a sister to trust, enjoy, and rely on; she was a wife of rare quality; and her grandchildren brought out in her a special tenderness and attention that went beyond — if possible — even that shown to her own children.

And of course Mom was also "Aunt Eleanor." A story is told that once one of our older cousins brought a friend to a Defazio family picnic at East Portal Park in Sacramento. As they arrived, Mom walked up, embraced our cousin, turned to greet her friend, and said, "Hello! I'm Aunt Eleanor!" Our cousin's friend was puzzled — a few moments later she turned to our cousin and asked "Why'd she say that? She's not my aunt!" Our cousin pointed to the huge crowd of people — well over one hundred strong — and said that most of them were Mom's nieces and nephews and their kids. "I see now!" the friend said, "Being an aunt is this family is like being the Pope!"

A Classy Lady

Whatever her title or role, Mom wore it lightly. Since her death, a number of people who knew her well have used the same word to praise her: "She was a class act." "Wow, she had class." "A classy lady." And Mom was indeed a classy lady. She was gracious in both senses — in the cultural sense, she was beautiful, stylish, and refined; while in her personal character, she was kind, friendly, patient, and compassionate. These are qualities that always should go together, and sometimes actually do — in people like Mom. So how do we account for Mom's apparently effortless sense of grace and refinement? We'll tell you a secret: she worked at it.

Mom used to talk about her time in "charm school," learning perfect posture by walking with a book on her head, and practicing her conversational skills and her penmanship. We'd kid her about it, but the experience was for real. Here's what she says in her memoir:

I met someone at Cal-Western [insurance agency in the summer of 1953] who was taking a course at the local charm school. It was an intriguing idea. I was growing interested in developing a wardrobe and was beginning to buy attractive clothes. After the course was completed I participated in two fashion shows and two or three other events in Sacramento. It was fun for a brief time but I soon put it behind me. I did learn about using make-up, assembling a wardrobe, and walking with a book on my head. I realized, though, that I would rather read the book!

Eleanor Defazio, intellectual runway model! Mom graduated from charm school with a perky Audrey Hepburn bob; but she walked through life with the calm grace of someone who had learned to balance a book — and to read one too. It's a testament to how well she learned her lessons in style that she walked steadily through the fashion earthquakes of the Sixties and Seventies, and then on into the Eighties, Nineties, and "Aughts," and managed somehow to look great in every changing era. Of course God gave her the perfect skin and the bright smile, but Mom knew how to improve on these gifts by finding what was best and most attractive in any place and time, and to make it her own.

However, when people call Mom a classy lady they mean more than good looks, fashion sense, and party manners; they mean the love and kindness that lay behind them. "The point of good manners," Mom used to say, "is to make people feel comfortable." Even in thinking of her own appearance and behavior, Mom was thinking of others, of their good, of setting them at ease. Everybody, it seemed, loved to be around her: from our friends, to her nephews and nieces, to the neighbor ladies, to the poor soul in the produce aisle who poured out her troubles, to the jailhouse inmate who asked for her prayers. She listened as if she cared, because she did; she thought that you were important because you were — because you are. You must be important, if such an important person as God made you. A woman with Mom's "people skills" and charm could have used her powers to manipulate, to undermine, to dominate; instead she used them to soothe, to console, to reconcile.

Scads of Fun

Not that she was solemn about it. Hers was an easy grace, unobtrusive, unostentatious, as silent as light. With Mom, you didn't hear the gears grind, nor did you feel operated on. She was, in addition to smart and pretty and refined and classy, "scads of fun," to use one of her old expressions. She was quick to laugh, sing, and dance a few steps — she'd spontaneously belt out some lines from "Fight Dragons Fight" (the Sac High school song) or "A Spoonful of Sugar," cheer up a sad son with "Side by Side" or "You are my Sunshine." She knew the words to the goofy old Al Jolson/Bing Crosby duet "The Spaniard Who Blighted My Life"; she could say "Vitameatavegamin" without the aid of alcohol; and (this became her especially well) she'd perform a Johnny Mercer tune called "Personality," as in "When Madam Pompadour was on the ballroom floor, / Said all the gentlemen 'Obviously, / The madam has the cutest personality!'" Her voice quavered a bit, but so did Dorothy Lamour's. Mom knew all the show tunes, especially the ones that Craig, Catherine, and Chris were performing in the latest Napa High School musical. She cheered herself hoarse at Craig's and Charles' basketball games, because even a classy lady shouts on appropriate occasions.

Family and friends who visited our home marveled at how smoothly she made it run. As with her social graces, so at home she was a warm and creative mother who worked so hard that she made it look easy; motherhood was her calling and her passion and her joy. She studied hard; she read Dr. Spock (Baby and Child Care) and Dr. Ginott (Between Parent and Child), and improved on them both. When we were little, she knew how to nurture and encourage each of her children according to our particular personalities, gifts and quirks, and how to make us all feel uniquely loved. Between the carrot and the stick, it was almost always carrot, and even that she made into carrot cake. As to the stick, usually a word or a look from her was enough. She spanked us only when nothing else would do, and often with tears in her eyes.

Broad Shoulders

It takes courage and self-control to discipline your children well; and Mom was courageous and willing to act on behalf of those who needed her help, especially family. "I've got broooad shoulders" she'd jokingly say; she did, too, for a woman of her size; she didn't come from the paisani of Castagna for nothing. It says a lot that at about the same time that she was going to charm school, she was seeing for the first time one of her lifelong favorite films, On the Waterfront. In her memoir she speaks of how this movie stirred her compassion and her sense of justice, as the Marlon Brando character, washed-up "palooka" Terry Malloy, took on the corrupt union bosses and fought for his fellow longshoremen's right to work. For all of her very real kindness, tact, and charm, and though she stood only 5'4", Mom had a spine of steel, a Terry Malloy side that would not suffer liars and bullies gladly, especially when her loved ones were at risk. In another favorite film, It's a Wonderful Life, Uncle Billy tells the nasty Mr. Potter, "not all the heels were in Germany and Japan" — and when Mom got to moving, the heels learned the hard way.

Family History: Mom's Memoir

Mom was a deep rememberer; she loved the whole cockeyed caravan of the human race, and relished telling the stories of her ancestors, her parents and family, her neighbors and friends, children and grandchildren — from the corner of 59th Street and Second Avenue, through Tahoe Elementary, Kit Carson Jr. High, and Sac High — and eventually to Sloughhouse and Utica, Montebello, Whittier, Citrus Heights, Truckee, Tahoe City, Chico, San Pablo/Pinole, and Napa, and then to Stockton and Malibu and Irvine and Westminster, Chicago and Grand Rapids, Greensboro and London and Paris and San Francisco.

We wish that we could recall all the stories that she told us; but then, we don't have to, because Mom left behind a memoir of over 200 pages, written between 1997 and 2002. It's part immigrant epic, beginning in Calabria in the 1890s and tracing the Talericos and Picollis and Defazios, the Arcuris and the Panes, as they moved by fits and starts to New York City and Hudson and Utica and then across the continent to Sacramento. It's part American dream, as the focus narrows to the remarkable Luigi Defazio, who starts from the Brickyard on the Hudson, makes his way as a boilermaker and union organizer to the Southern Pacific Shops in Sacramento, and by his 30s is bucking the Great Depression as proprietor of Louie's Market and President of the United Grocers of California. He and his wife Christina build a home bursting with their multigenerational family; a neighborhood grows up around them and their nine children, in many ways centered on them; his sons play ball in the glory days of the Pacific Coast League; his oldest boy graduates Sac High in February 1944 and that December fights the Battle of the Bulge; and by the late 1940s the dynamic patriarch is on his way with his growing chain of four Louie's Markets.

And the memoir is part American tragedy. Louie's favorite niece Eleanor dies of typhoid early in 1934, and he gives her name to his second-youngest girl, born soon after; sweet-natured Louis Jr. dies young of meningitis in the summer of 1941; and Louie himself, born with the 20th Century, collapses from heart failure in 1949, decades before his time. The stream of family history is rerouted by this seismic death — Louie's aged father is taken by Louie's brother to languish in an old hospital basement; his teen daughters are left without their adored icon of a father; his grown sons are suddenly free of the "old man" but still heirs to his wealth and his vision — and under his shadow. Eisenhower-era American dream becomes nightmare as the sons' ambitious restaurant venture collapses, taking the family fortune with it — like an eerie anticipation of the film Big Night. After the daughters and sons and their growing families recover and again prosper in the 1960s, fissures appear in the 1970s over the care of their aging mother Christina, and in the midst of a quietly intense struggle, Christina loses a second beloved son before his time.

Yet there are plenty of good times along the way, with vivid characters and some happy endings. There's a truly astonishing bigamist; a heroic rescue from drowning; there are easy-going bantering big brothers — Bill, Jim, Richard, and Anthony — and their buddies; there are spunky sisters — Marge, Marie, and Bernadine; there are quirky and even wacky neighbors. We read lively descriptions of bygone foods and furnishings and gadgets, radio shows and movie palaces, of the rats at Sloughhouse and of Ota Giuseppe's goat. Governor Earl Warren makes an appearance, as do supermarket pioneer Tom Raley and comedian Will Rogers — the latter in a portrait over Grandpa Louie's desk, the others in the flesh. All in all, and fittingly for the work of a grocer's daughter, Mom's memoir is a moveable feast.

The memoir is a fascinating document in its own right, based not only on Mom's recollections but on her interviews and conversations with many older relatives who had lived through the immigrant era. But it is especially precious to those who loved her, because it preserves her authentic voice and thoughts during the years 1997-2002, just before 2003-2004 when Lewy Body Dementia began to rob her of her memories and indeed of her own mind. It was God's grace that gave Mom to us at all; and it is Mom's grace that has given us her life in her own lasting words.

Mom's Model: Her Mother

Since describing a life like Mom's could take a lifetime, we might as well end here. We'll conclude with a few more words of her own. If there's a personal theme that emerges from Mom's memoir, it's her struggle to live out her mother Christina's own traditional model in the contemporary world. And this struggle came to a head in the late 1970s at a time when her aged mother most needed her help.

It was my mother who had been my primary example. My question was whether I would be the same way in my later years? I was beginning to see my world from a broader perspective because my world had become so enlarged. It was a perspective, by birth, that I had been destined to assume just because of my birth. The traditional Italian family had different expectations for sons and daughters. My mother knew of only giving and the giving up of herself. I was struggling with my role as the daughter of this person. I could not feel resentment because I saw the situation as a responsibility. It was a moment of truth for me.
What if I had been born into a family of a totally different background? Different parenting? What if I had been an only child, or even one of two, instead of the eighth of nine?
I loved my mother dearly, and honored her and her courage to always be faithful to God and to her family, no matter what happened to her personally. I was emotionally committed to my extended family, the most important being my mother, whose needs I must help meet. I could only conjecture what other responsibilities would await me in the future. I knew I must persevere to carry on, be of service, and put my faith in God as I had seen my mother do time after time.

Here we see Mom's resolution of her dilemma: to take the initiative as a contemporary woman rather than remaining passive like the traditional Italian mother. Yet Mom's reasons for taking this non-traditional action are entirely traditional: to show the love and duty that we all owe to our parents and to God. Here we see her fulfillment of her own mother's complicated model; here we see peasant Christian virtues and simple faith shining, full of grace, in a modern woman of the world.

Her price is far above rubies...
She girds herself with strength,
          And makes her arms strong...
She opens her hand to the poor,
          And reaches out her hand to the needy...
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
          And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue...
Her children rise up and bless her...
"Many women have done excellently,
          But you surpass them all."

(Proverbs 31)