NOTE: According to her wishes, we gave my mom a burial at sea over the holidays. We rented the same boat that had taken my dad to his final rest in 1999, went out past the 3 mile limit, and committed her ashes to the deep.
But she had one surprise left for us. When my brother went to close her account, he learned that her name was spelled Matilda, not Mathilda, and that she had been born on July 19, 1923, not July 18 as we had always celebrated.
Knowing this was mom, from the grave, asking for an encore, I herewith offer what I wrote after learning of her passing in September,
Love you, mom. Every great actor deserves an encore.
My mom died last night.
She was born Mathilda Matilda Gertrude Edwina O’Donnell, on July 18 July 19, 1923, in Central Falls, RI. She died September 20, 2016, at the home she’d had for half her life, in Huntington Beach, California.
Her father died when she was 4 and she was raised by her maiden Aunt Till and Grandma O’Donnell, who protected her from the harsh realities of the Great Depression in a big three-story home with huge dormer windows, where they rented out rooms.
She graduated from the Rhode Island College of Education (R.I.C.E.) in 1944. I cited that when I applied to Rice University in 1973 and got away with it. She then moved to California to become an actress, but mainly worked as a teacher until she married my dad, Frederick Herman Blankenhorn, in January 1951.
Her Grandma O’Donnell was the catalyst for that. Grandma was dying, at age 83. Tillie had to go east for it, and dad knew that if she went alone he might not see her again. They got off the train and married in Las Vegas. They stayed married until he passed away on October 30, 1999.
Fred and Tillie had four kids in Massapequa, on Long Island. I was the second, the oldest boy. She had an odd naming convention that took me decades to figure out. But I now believe my older sister, Michael, was named for her – she hated the name Mathilda. I know my younger sister Tracey was married for my Great Uncle, Arnold Tracy Harris. My brother Carl was supposed to be Edmund, after her father Edmund O’Donnell.
That leaves me. I looked up the etymology of Dana a few years ago. It’s Polish. Strange, until you learn that Grandma O’Donnell was born Anna Korczyniewski in 1867. Her dad was minor nobility sent to England as finishing school, and the story was he married a scullery maid, last name Jackson. His folks hated her for being lower class. Her folks hated him for being Polish. So they became Americans. It's why I am the only Dana Blankenhorn you will ever meet, a great asset in the Internet Age. The recipes mom taught me were English – spag bowl, liver and onions, and “breaded bread crumbs,” which are clams, onion and bread crumbs baked in clam shells.
All of Tillie’s kids and grandkids have their own precious memories of their mom or grandma. Here are just a few of mine.
In the 1960s, when kids came over to play, Tillie confiscated their toy guns. I finally got a BB gun one year and was made to always treat it respectfully. I never shot my eye out.
Tillie dragged me to Catholic service on early Sunday mornings when I was a kid. She drove me to the small, plain Catholic churches in Amityville or Seaford, rather than the fancy St. Rose near our house. “I’m not going to the godfather’s church,” she later said. Carlo Gambino had given money to build St. Rose of Lima in Massapequa. Tillie had principles. Her kids do, too.
Tillie became a saleswoman that decade. She sold real estate at Dial Realty. The slogan was “buy your next home by computer,” which meant she got print-outs each week she cut out and put in a binder. She also sold a speed-reading machine, with scrolls and an electric motor. It passed the words across a plastic cover with a line across it, like a bombing site. You would learn to rest your vision on each line once, and I got up to 800 words per minute on it.
After moving to California in 1973 Tillie lost most of her vision to retina detachments, but she found a new life at Braille, and made many new friends, for whom she became “the sighted one.” She helped a lot of those friends through tough times and taught me an important lesson for later life. When old friends die, it’s God’s way of saying make new friends.
Tillie loved adventurous food. She took me to eat Korean BarBQ in the 1970s, and Vietnamese Pho. She loved champagne brunches. She also loved dollar stores, laughing at the merchandise. She enjoyed casinos, but was also up for adventure, and went camping with my sister when she was 60, because Tracey couldn’t afford both a hotel and tickets to the Hearst Castle.
Tillie’s four children gave her 7 grandchildren, and she lived to see all of them into young adulthood. Her children have had no divorces, no felony convictions, and none of us ever started a war in Iraq based on lies. She heard my daughter Robin’s first words, at just three months. Tillie was burping her on our front porch swing and distinctly heard the baby say “I grew.”
Robin is now seeking a career in urban ecology. John is taking graduate work in biology. Michael’s daughter Alexa Paynter got a psychology paper published, under her own name, while at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Tracey’s Chris and Matt Corso are both in college. Carl’s son Lucas is headed to Broadway once he finishes at Berklee’s drama program, and his daughter Bridgette wants to become a singer-songwriter. She wound up one grandson short of a gospel, with Matthew, Luke and John. But then there’s Chris.
After I moved to Atlanta she kept saying she wanted to see “some antebellum” and by 2011 I had the money to do the right thing. Robin and I took her to Savannah. There docents did a show for us in a house built in 1823, pretending it was 1824 and we, their “good friends from the north,” had come over for tea. They chatted like James Monroe was President. She also saw the grave of Rhode Island’s Revolutionary War Hero, Nathaniel Greene, whom she’d learned about as a little girl. She got her antebellum.
Most of all, Tillie loved Broadway. She took me to The Music Man when I was three. Our home had a piano, and the bench seat was filled with show tunes. Her “song” was Cole Porter’s So in Love, from Kiss Me Kate, and I was able to take her to the 1999 revival. She loved Johnny Mercer lyrics like Come Rain or Come Shine and Moon River. Lucas and Bridgette made her proud.
This last January, when she was in a facility for people with dementia, I played her Who Will I Turn To from The Roar of the Greasepoint, the Smell of the Crowd. Miraculously, she sang along. She no longer knew who I was, but she still knew a good lyric:
I’ll find what I’m after
I’ll throw off my sorrow
Beg, steal or borrow
My share of laughter
With you I could learn to
With you on a new day
But who shall I turn to, if you turn away?
Tillie lived to be a decade older than any of her ancestors, despite 50 years of cigarettes and 70 of Irish-sized drinking. I learned recently that her last memory was of her father, Edmund, who passed away in 1927. I look like him, and like Grandma Anna, for whom I was named. For this I am eternally grateful.
She is with them now. Rest in Peace, mom.