Cynthia Elaine French Parente
1931 – 1984
Cynthia (Cindy) French Parente had a difficult and dynamic life. It made her incredibly strong, and left her with an unwavering sense of right and wrong, duty, and responsibility
Born in the middle of the Great Depression and at the start of the Dust Bowl years in Concordia, Kansas, Cynthia’s early years were marked by poverty, upheaval, and ultimately resilience. Her parents’ farm failed, they divorced, and her mother, with very few options before her, placed six-year-old Cindy and her two brothers in a Methodist children’s home while she pursued a teaching degree. Five long years later, now with a way to support her family, Cindy’s mother Irene removed her children from the orphanage to live a more stable, but very simple, life together.
Cindy graduated from High School in Newton, Kansas in 1949 and immediately enrolled in nursing school. From her mother’s experience she had learned the importance of women educating themselves and acquiring a means of self-support. This is a quality Cindy later passed down to her own daughters.
Shortly after her graduation, Cindy worked in a clinic in Newton caring for patients during one of the last waves of the polio epidemic. She caught the disease and would later tell her children of the difficulties she faced teaching herself to walk again. Her family could not afford to pay for rehabilitation.
Cindy took a nursing job in North Carolina near the end of her recuperation and met a young airman on a bus. She and Pasquale (Pat) Parente, a native Rhode Islander, married in July 1954. After Pat’s time in the Airforce, the couple moved to Indiana where he attended Indiana Tech on the G.I. Bill. Cindy worked as a nurse to support the family through her first three pregnancies.
After Pat’s graduation, the family moved wherever the jobs were. They had seven children in eleven years, the first three in Indiana, the next three in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the last in Pamona, California.
In 1967 Pat agreed to a job opportunity at Ratheon that enabled him to bring his family home to Rhode Island. The Parente family resided in Middletown while on the hunt for a property to build. Cindy and Pat drove the state and stumbled upon Little Compton one day by chance. Two years later they fell in love with a wooded piece of property on Long Highway and purchased it from David Patten, the well-known Providence Journal editor and local historian. Pasquale built their home himself, and the family moved into the unfinished house as soon as it was possible, no interior doors, no stairs yet, but it was, at last, their forever home.
In many ways Cindy was the one who turned that house into a home, focusing exclusively on her family for her first eight or nine years in Little Compton. She practiced what some would call a very “old fashioned” way of life. Most of those years, the family did not have a TV. Cindy cultivated an extensive garden and taught her children about the land. She taught her daughters how to embroider, and those who would learn, how to can vegetables and pluck a chicken. She raised her own chickens and turkeys and even a goat. Her daily activities and the skills she passed down to her children reflected the life of child of the Depression far more than they did a modern woman of the 1970s.
And then there was a shift. In 1979, with most of her children grown and out of the home, Cindy got her driver’s license for the very first time. She did so in order to recertify her other license as a Registered Nurse. Cindy reentered the workforce at the age of 49.
She joined Nancy Pontes at the Little Compton Visiting Nurse Association and began caring for the people of Little Compton. She always wore her nurse’s uniform and believed firmly that, “You are not a proper nurse unless you are wearing the uniform.”
Cynthia and Nancy immediately became fast friends and confidants. They were very like-minded. A few years later when Cindy was not feeling well, she confided in Nancy long before she told her family or even consulted her doctor. Everyone mistook Cindy’s symptoms. They attributed them to her long history of asthma, perhaps from her Dust Bowl years, or her muscle weakness from polio. In reality she had heart disease, but in the early 1980s no one, not even talented nurses, realized the prevalence of heart disease among women.
Cynthia died suddenly on December 3, 1984 with her husband, two daughters, and the local volunteer ambulance corps doing everything possible to save her. She was 53 years old. It was several days later when the family learned her death was due to a massive heart attack. The family had sensed that something was wrong with Cindy’s health. She didn’t look right in the weeks leading up to her death, but no one suspected a heart attack.
Throughout her life Cynthia shared very little of her life story with her children. When her youngest child, Serena, was in high school and started asking questions, Cindy was willing to share, and important parts of her history came out. Conversations with Cindy’s brothers, after her death, filled in still more unspoken details and brought about a lot of understanding. Most recently this photograph of Cynthia as a child was sent by a cousin just a few weeks ago.
Based on an interview with her daughter, Serena Parente Charlebois
April 7, 2020