In a little white house in the Hoxsie section of the city, days are measured in pillboxes.
The structure seems snipped from a picture book. The house is filled with a collection of trinkets that has grown for the past seven decades. It’s just as the kids – who are now in their sixties and seventies and have children and grandchildren of their own – remember it. Sure, a wall has been knocked down and a spare room is now a renovated bathroom, but it is still their childhood home.
This is the world to Agnes Quattrini, a 100-year-old matriarch who, according to her children, purchased the house with her husband Michael 68 years ago for $5,000.
She sits at the head of the table silently as her children recollect. She has difficulty remembering and hearing sometimes. She is present and distant, smiling at what she can gather and occasionally letting out a laugh. She is happiest when her family is together, and she holds on to the playful sense of humor she shared with her late husband, Michael, who passed away after a fight with cancer in 2001 at the age of 82.
There is no sure truth in the past. Dates are blurry and memories are pieced together through corroboration and discussion. Deaths and marriages, births and illnesses are temporal landmarks, anchors in a floating past from which a timeline can be drawn. This is a familial calculus, an oral history of a century-old woman.
What can be agreed upon is her compassion and selflessness. While Agnes’ insistence that she “doesn’t have any stories” may be a byproduct of an aged mind, she would never tell her own story first.
She was born February 17, 1917 in Attleboro, Massachusetts, a 25-mile drive from where she now sits, as Agnes Imbruglia. She had a sister and a brother who lived to 99 and 101, respectively.
She earned a full scholarship to art school, but her father wouldn’t let her go. She instead dropped out of school at 16 and lived at home to help her mother. Her artistic bent did not fade. Hand drawn replications of Saturday cartoons hang on the paneled walls of her home; painted roses grace the corners of the white kitchen cabinets.
Agnes is ambidextrous, though arthritis has now taken much of the use of her hands.
After dropping out of school, Agnes worked at Arden Jewelry factory in Providence for 10 years. To this day, her seat at the head of the table is flanked by jewelry hung on wall-mounted hooks.
Photos of family members decorate the walls of the living room, including some of her late husband.
In 1938, Michael Quattrini, then 20 years old, came to his mother with a question. “How do you get a girlfriend?” he said.
“Whistle at her,” his mother responded.
Agnes Imbruglia was walking in Providence with a friend when Michael Quattrini whistled at her.
“He came down, he introduced himself to me. From then on…” Agnes said.
“It’s history,” interjects Linda Marold, Agnes and Michael’s daughter.
Two years later the couple wed.
Michael and Agnes would be married for 61 jubilant years. After retiring from the Navy, Michael worked as a chef. He eventually opened Meatball Mike’s in Oakland Beach.
He and Agnes would go out dancing with friends every Saturday night at the Lyon’s Den, a since burned down venue on Warwick Avenue.
She would find joy in dressing up, matching her skirts with her tights and wearing rings on every finger. Still, green earrings hang from her earlobes and her fingernails are painted orange. A self-taught seamstress, Agnes would sew clothes for herself and her children. Later in her life, she would get dressed up every Saturday and take the bus to Warwick Mall with her friends. This tradition continued until she was about 90, when a couple years after she had to beat a potential mugger away with an umbrella, she was forbidden to cross Warwick Avenue by her concerned family. She wore high heels into her 90s, refusing to wear sneakers.
For most of her life, she was a housewife.
“She loved her home, she loved cleaning, she loved being there for her kids, and that’s what she did,” said her daughter-in-law Jean Quattrini. Her actions were always selfless.
While her husband was a chef by profession, Agnes was also known for her cooking. The week’s menu was a pre-determined slate. Sunday: spaghetti and meatballs, Monday: chicken, Tuesday: pork chops and so on. It was a seven-day cycle that would start over again every week. There was a food budget. She would save the few dollars she did not spend on groceries for Christmas presents for her five children.
On Saturdays, kids from up and down the street would come running to the Quattrini’s door to eat hot dogs from Agnes’ electric burner. She would toast each bun on both sides until golden brown.
“It’s who she was,” Jean said.
Her giving spirit persisted even when her kids grew up and left home. Well into her old age, Agnes would bring candy to St. Timothy Church to give to the children.
But selflessness does not mean she lived a life devoid of pleasure. Agnes would often enjoy a Coors Light in a glass. She would not drink out of a bottle because her husband said it wasn’t ladylike. She has an insatiable sweet tooth, and today often asks her family to bring her pastries.
“How she isn’t the size of a house, I’ll never know,” Linda said.
But with a century of life comes a century of difficulties. In 1974, her husband had a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 56 and was in a coma for 10 days. A month later, their first-born son, Vincent, then in his early thirties, took his own life.
“I lived this long because I take one day at a time,” Agnes said.
Life has been even more difficult since the passing of her husband 16 years ago. She has had multiple falls in the last 10 years. At 95 she fell and broke her pelvis, then, at 97 she fell again. The doctors asked if they should go through with a surgery that would put a rod in her leg or if they should just make her comfortable. Agnes chose the surgery. Both times she was told she would never walk again and both times she recovered and shuffled her 4-foot, 10-inch frame into the doctor’s office on her own two feet.
One of her falls left her middle finger bent in a curve. “She has a permanent bird,” said Linda, adopting her mother’s sense of humor.
“I’ve got a hook,” Agnes adds, proudly displaying her third digit.
As is the natural progression of parenthood, the tables have slowly turned, and the mother who raised five children eventually started requiring assistance. Bills and grocery shopping slowly became the responsibilities of her kids. Five years ago Agnes’ son, Fred, and his wife, Maritza, moved into her home. They now live there and care for her, cooking in her kitchen.
Every night Agnes calls Fred and Maritza to her bedside and says, “Thank you, I love you.”
Despite having full time caretakers, “she will not ask for anything. She will always put everybody else first,” Linda said. “She has never said a bad thing about anybody,” she added.
She will not admit to being hungry, and she even offers her own meals to her family members when they come to dine with her.
Days are not so exciting anymore. Her life as a homebody is no longer a choice, but a necessity. She wakes up, eats breakfast, and watches TV – mostly Family Feud and karate movies. She is surrounded by relics of her past experiences. Commemorative plates line the walls of the dining room; souvenirs from her travels to Canada, Italy, Mexico, Nashville, Tennessee. She would often tell her kids that she would die in this house.
She remembers what is important. Agnes has taken to sitting in the bathroom for great lengths of time and making phone calls. She only has two friends who are still alive, Joe Castriotta, 89, and Anna Porcelli, 82. She calls them every day.
She sees her children frequently and she speaks to them over the phone at least every other day. If she hasn’t seen them in two days, she tells them she misses them. She has every one of her four kids’ phone numbers memorized, as well as those of her still living friends.
She ends every conversation by asking the person on the other end of the line to give her love to everyone.
Through a snowstorm, 52 people gathered at the house to celebrate Agnes Quattrini’s 100th birthday on the 12th of February, five days before she would hit the century mark. They brought cards with high heels on them, balloons, flowers, and a large cake with roses that match her kitchen cabinets. Agnes can no longer drink the hoppy beverage she enjoyed so much – she aspirates so she has to thicken all of her liquids into a gel. Still, she smiled as she held a sealed Coors Light to her lips and pretended to drink. Editor’s note: A sophomore at Brown University where he is studying sociology and English, Cal Barash-David interviewed Agnes and members of her family to write this story as an assignment for a class in advanced feature writing. Cal is a native of Bainbridge, Washington and covers women sports for the Brown Daily Herald.