Grace F. (Cannata) Gray, 85, and formerly of Holden passed away peacefully on Monday, August 31, 2015. She was born in Boston, daughter of the late Phillip and Concetta (Micciche) Cannata.
Grace was a woman who lived up to her name: tall, beautiful, and meticulously dressed, elegant, her hair and nails always done, Grace had a smile that lit up rooms, melted hearts, stayed with you.
Life wasn’t easy for Grace. She grew up in an Italian immigrant family at a time when Italians were seen as second class citizens in the Boston area, and she and her family lived in Medford, significantly removed from the Italian neighborhoods of the North End and East Boston where there was at least safety in numbers. Nevertheless, Grace was proud of her Italian heritage. She loved being Italian.
Grace had a difficult childhood plagued by the mental illness of her mother who she adored, and her parents’ divorce and her father’s consequent re-marriage. Grace cried each time she talked about her mother, Connie, who ended up institutionalized for much of Grace’s life, even living with her and the family at times, and eventually tragically dying of ALS. “She couldn’t catch a break,” Grace would say about her mother. She restored the good memories of her mother for her siblings, children and grand children, so they wouldn’t remember her only for her illness. Grace didn’t let illness be the thing that defined ANY of her people. She let love be the thing that defined them instead.
Grace was a sickly kid herself, and once had to miss a whole year of school because of pneumonia. Her mother sent her to Italian witch doctors in East Boston who would rub olive oil all over her and chant strange chants to rid her of illness. Her mother was convinced that when she got better, Grace had a debt to pay back to God for all of the prayers that her mother had prayed on behalf of her in church, so she made her wear a monk outfit to school every day for a year.
Grace loved being Italian, but she didn’t love Italian men. Following World War II, Grace's unexpected introduction to a young Navy sailor, Charles Gray, led to their marriage in 1947. They met roller-skating, when she was supposed to be on a date with another man she found far more boring (in fact, she compared him to a lamppost). They went roller-skating again the next weekend, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Together, Grace and Charlie celebrated 68 years of marriage on Monday, the day she died. It was a good day.
Grace and Charlie lived in Malden, Medford and Wakefield before settling in Reading where they raised their family of three children, Ken, Patricia and Janet. Grace and Charlie also enjoyed a country home in Meredith, NH where they relocated for 20 years before moving to Holden and Rutland in the past 10 years. Grace spent almost 20 years as a sales operation manager for the sales force at the Skyr brand clothing company before retiring. She was great at her job.
Grace and Charlie’s lives together were marked by art, music, parties, friends, and family. Pat says that the first word that comes to her mind when she thinks of her parents’ relationship is respect. And the two of them loved to be together, so much that they were often wearing matching outfits. Charlie said, “I don’t want to describe Grace as needy, but she was always needing me. If I wasn’t there, she was always looking for me. “Charlie! Where are you? Where’s your father?” She’d say. “He’s always hiding on me.”
Grace and Charlie were fabulous dancers and dance partners to each other. They threw parties almost every weekend for their many friends, and the parties were infamous for their hilarity and hijinks. It is fitting that our celebration of Grace’s life takes place on labor day weekend, because Charlie and Grace threw a labor day party every year that was three days long, and culminated in a ceremonial march of the lobsters.
Grace was the center of their social group, and the ultimate hostess, and guest. She was an incredible cook, with an attention to presentation. She brought coolers full of food to every event she attended. Her friend Pat described Grace as “their life”, saying “every weekend we had something to do because of Grace.” Their friends adored Grace and Charlie, and wanted to be in their orbit. Their grandchildren even remember two couples vying to be their grandparent’s only Jewish friends.
Grace had a magnificent voice, according to her husband, Charlie. This was the first thing he told me about her when we met at their granddaughter, Jen’s wedding this spring. She sang “O Holy Night” like an angel in the Methodist church choir. “We haven’t been to church since she stopped singing, it’s too sad,” Charlie said that night. Grace studied voice as a young woman and was a talented lyric soprano. She was a member of the Velvet Tones, a female singing group that had an agent and was even on TV.
Grace and Charlie were charter members of the Colonial Chorus in Reading, MA, and Grace adored musical theater. She starred in musicals such as Carousel, Pajama Game, Bye Bye Birdie, Oklahoma, Songs from the Left Elbow, Rhapsody in Blue. They were theater people—emotive, artsy, fun, bold. Grace loved politics, and was a dyed in the wool liberal. She loved Barack Obama who she thought was very handsome, and could be found having spirited and loud political debate with just about anyone willing to be her opponent. Grace loved to travel, and visited Europe several times with Charlie.
Grace is described by her grandchildren as fiercely loyal to her family, almost to the point of absurdity. They mused that probably if the grandkids had ever come home and said that they ran someone over with the car, she would have immediately responded with: “Well, they shouldn’t have been in the street then.”
Family came first. Grace spent hours and hours talking with and getting to know her adult grandchildren and their children. Grace was a fabulous cook, famous for her sauce, her Christmas antipasto and her pizzelles. She cooked her granddaughter Kate’s meals for two weeks every night after she came home with her baby from the hospital. When her daughter Pat had cancer, she and Charlie kept the family running. Grace saved her granddaughter, Jennifer’s, life according to Pat…keeping her going through the darkest night of her soul. She was present when she got her CNA, and present at her wedding. In fact, Grace went to every event that ever happened for every single one of her people, bearing the best gifts. Showering people with gifts.
Grace was non-judgmental. She didn’t put up with anyone’s crap. She was funny.
Grace was a survivor, but never a martyr. Grace was a four-time cancer survivor, of four different kinds of cancers, and she survived the death of her youngest daughter, Janet, which was the deepest pain she had ever experienced. She was never the same after that. It was after Janet’s death that the family began to slowly lose pieces of Grace to dementia over the last 8 years of her life, the cruelest disease for someone so vibrant, so fierce, so alive, so sharp. “She was a prisoner of her own mind,” Kate said. “It was her world, we were just living in it.”
What a life. What a wild and precious life.
My favorite Sweet Honey in the Rock song is called “Wanting Memories,” and I want to share some lyrics with you now. It is a song about how we piece together memories of our dead in order to continue living in their image.
The words are:
I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I thought that you were gone, but now I know you're with me.
You are the voice that whispers all I need to hear.
I know a "Please", a "Thank you", and a smile will take me far.
I know that I am you and you are me, and we are one.
I know that who I am is numbered in each grain of sand.
I know that I am blessed,
again, and over again.
This describes what resurrection is. All of you, and especially this beloved family--you are blessed again and over again by the life of Grace Gray—the voice that whispers all you need to hear, which is “I am you and you are me and we are one.”
We do the work of resurrection together. Grace has been and will continue to be, resurrected in the memories, in the bodies, in the mannerisms, in the lives, in the stories, of the people who love her—and so Graces lives on. That is eternal life. To carry on the work of Love that Grace embodied in this world is ours to do now. May we live as she lived—bold, singing, proud, loyal, beloved.
Grace Frances Gray: well done, good and faithful servant.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.