Serena Candida Ramos Gomez
1906 – 1981
Essay by Marjory Gomez O’Toole
Let me start by saying that this essay is really more of a love letter to my grandmother than a true history. I’m not apologizing, just explaining, and I hope if you do read it, you will still be able to take away a sense of some of her experiences as a first generation American living and working in our small community.
As a little girl, I spent an incredible amount of time with my grandmother, Serena Ramos Gomez. She, and her husband Manuel Vincent Gomez, lived in a house next door to us on West Main Road on a farm that she inherited from her parents, Manuel and Senhorina (DeRosa) Ramos, immigrants from the island of Faial in the Azores.
The farmhouse, built around 1901, was bigger than my house, and felt very fancy to me. It had a pantry, two sunrooms, a formal dining room with a built-in china cabinet, a front and a back parlor and four big bedrooms upstairs. The upstairs was especially exciting and mysterious because, by the time I came along, my grandparents weren’t using it any longer and visits up there were an adventure. They had two bathrooms, put in after the 1938 Hurricane blew down the outhouse.
Gramma Gomez (pronounced Gooms) was born in Little Compton in 1906, the Ramoses’ only surviving daughter. She had a brother, Manuel F. Ramos, who was born two years earlier, and she always seemed very fond of him, even though he had died before I was born. While some of Little Compton’s Azorean immigrant families totally abandoned the Portuguese language in an effort to assimilate into the community, the Ramoses found a balance between the old and new. Gramma could read and write and speak in both languages. Her English had the slightest hint of a European accent, and her speech was peppered with Portuguese words that just popped out naturally. It was never “It’s Cold,” it was “Ta Fri.”
Gramma attended Little Compton schools until she was at least 13 and graduated from eighth grade. She may have also attended a few years of high school in what is now the Tax Collector’s Office on the Commons, since her brother was still in school at age 16.[i] She was a people person, and she is just glowing in the pictures of her taken at school with her friends.
Gramma loved her Portuguese heritage. She was very proud of it at a time when others were not and made me promise to learn to speak Portuguese someday. (I have not yet. She also made me promise to learn to play the piano, and I have not done that yet either, so I am going to be busy.) Though according to census records her parents could read and write, I remember family stories that they could not, and that Gramma was the one who took care of reading and writing letters back and forth to the relatives in the old country. While I was alive, Gramma and Grampa Gomez also made a clear distinction between themselves – Portuguese people who had been born here and “greenhorns” who had just come over. There was no animosity toward the “greenhorns,” and really not even any problem using that word at the time, but there definitely was a sense that it was somehow better to be a child of immigrants than to be an immigrant yourself. In the 1950s and ‘60s they served as sponsors for a family from the Azores. Today we bring our kids to the Portuguese restaurant that family operates in Fall River.
My grandmother married my grandfather, another Portuguese first generation Little Comptonite, in 1926 at the age of 20. Neither had any higher education. My grandfather worked on the roads for the State until heart attacks sent him into early retirement in his fifties. My grandmother worked as a maid, a cook, and a laundress. When her children were small, she was able to stay home with them, but in the 1970s I remember her working for the Morans and the Bordens and being very fond of and loyal to her employers. Members of those families have also conveyed their affection for my grandmother to me. The Bordens have shared photographs of Gramma in her maid’s uniform and mentioned how much they enjoyed her cooking. This is absolutely shocking to me, as she was perhaps the worst cook I have ever encountered (think ketchup as spaghetti sauce), but I’m glad they were happy with her work. Grandma would bring laundry home with her and make her own starch using a Virginia Dare soda bottle with a shaker on top. The smell was distinctive and wonderful.
As newlyweds my grandparents moved into my grandmother’s childhood home with her parents. Her brother had built a house next door. I once asked Gramma where she went on her honeymoon, and she said, “Upstairs.” That made me sad, even then. Between the ages of 21 and 36, she had five kids, Frances, her only daughter, followed by Leonard six years later, then Richard, Albert (my father), and the baby Leo in 1943. Leo had blonde curly hair as a baby, and Gramma was very proud of it. She kept Leo in curls for a very long time and once showed me one of his big fat banana curls that she had saved. It would have made Shirley Temple proud.
Grandma’s mother died young in 1935, but her father who we all called Pai (pronounced Poy) lived into his nineties. He died in 1970, and I have some very clear memories of bringing him cookies in his rocking chair on the porch when I was three. Pai moved into his own little house after he remarried, but at the end of his life he went back to live with Serena in the big house. She adored both of her parents. It showed through whenever she spoke of them. I have her mother’s wedding ring on right now because Gramma saved it and gave it to me when I was little.
It would not be accurate to say that my grandparents were wealthy, but they had enough. They traveled to California to see relatives, and they always had a nice car, one car that they shared. Their land was their real wealth, and my grandparents sold it in their retirement years to ensure their comfort. Jim and Lolly Mitchell purchased the Ramos farm around 1975 and developed it into Sakonnet Vineyards. My grandparents were careful to put some restrictions into the deed to ensure the land would be used for agriculture. They did not want to see a housing development spring up.
Gramma Gomez always seemed old to me. She would have been 67 when I was six, an age that is right around the corner for me and does not seem old at all anymore, but then there was just such a sense of times gone by surrounding her. She wore housedresses and aprons, hose with garters, hats for special occasions, a veil on her head when she went to church, and best of all, a corset with hard stays running up and down it. The stays, in all reality, were probably steel or some kind of hard plastic but in my memory they were whale bone. Giving her a hug was just amazing because you could use that as an opportunity to try and figure out what was going on with her clothing. Her hair was a lot like mine is now, quite gray, and she would put a silvery rinse through it to make it sparkle and keep it from going yellow.
Another shocking thing about Gramma Gomez – she smoked cigarettes. We all knew, even the little kids, and we were all supposed to keep it secret from my grandfather. I cannot imagine that ever actually worked, and figure my grandfather was just smart enough to turn a blind eye.
My grandmother was deeply religious. She loved her Catholic faith and played organ for the church at the Saturday vigil Mass. She would bring me up into the organ loft at St. Catherine’s and tell me to hang over the edge so I could hear if the singers were keeping up with her or not. I had absolutely no clue, but it was extremely exciting to be up in the loft. My grandparents’ bedroom was downstairs in what was once the back parlor. There was a high shelf all the way around the room, and I do not exaggerate, there were about 60 religious statues on that shelf, all different saints. The best part about the statues is that when it started to lightning my grandmother would panic and grab a bottle of holy water and start sprinkling the statues with it saying “Oy Jejus” to keep the lightning away. I think she knew I thought it was a little silly. I think she knew it was a little silly. And she did it anyway. She didn’t take life too seriously, she didn’t mind being teased even by a child, and that made her even more lovable.
One thing she did take very seriously was teaching me to knit. This wonderful woman, who basically let me get away with murder at her house, insisted I learn the right way to hold yarn in my left hand when I knit. I asked repeatedly if I could just to it the easy way and she firmly said no. I think it was the only time she was ever firm with me. I learned the right way, and I still love knitting 45 years later. Towards the end of her life, Gramma had heart disease and moments of confusion. One day she mixed up knitting with crocheting and couldn’t figure out what to do next. I was able to help her, a small reflection of the way she had helped me so often before.
I know my grandmother enjoyed having a little companion. I would spend all day at her house when I could, and my mom would call when it was dark for me to come home. We played Gin Rummy, we made chocolate chip cookies (Again she was a terrible cook so I gladly made them, but I never ate them.), she let me light candles and play with the hot wax, she let me explore all the old stuff in her cupboards and drawers, and after lunch we would stop everything and watch her stories. My grandfather would come in from the garden to join us for that. Friday nights (I think) was the Lawrence Welk Show. They would take me to the convent in Fall River to bring vegetables to the nuns (I had to answer, “Yes, Sister,” when spoken to, one more thing she was strict about.), and to Sunderlands for a fancy lunch. I would sit between them in the front seat of their Chevy Malibu. We would also go to Bank of Newport to deposit $5 into a college fund they started for me. They had both passed when I went to college, but I was grateful for the few hundred dollars they had put aside. Education was important to them, and they encouraged it. Though they did not graduate from high school, and none of their children finished college, many of their grandchildren did, and several now hold advanced degrees.
One last story. Gramma Gomez used to babysit for us a lot. She was not as much fun as Granny Turcotte, but she was still good, and it was exciting to have a babysitter. One evening my brothers and I decided it would be fun to jump out a window and run around the house like idiots. We did, and she caught us and scolded us. Later my parents came home, and they asked her how we had behaved. We were standing behind Gramma waiting to be ratted out. She said we were perfect. Believe me, we were not, but it’s so nice that she would pretend we were.
Serena Ramos Gomez had what many people would consider an ordinary life, wife, mother, grandmother, domestic worker. She spent the vast majority of her days in the same small town, and with each passing year, fewer and fewer people remember her. Had she not lived, I imagine that very little would be different in the wider world, but because she did live, I am here, and so are my brothers, and my children, and my nine cousins. I can only imagine what, collectively, we will all accomplish over the course of our lives, and the next generation in turn. I had the privilege and the joy of witnessing and participating in the my grandmother’s last years, and she was one of the first women to help teach me about the beauty and importance of ordinary lives like hers.
Marjory O’Toole, Executive Director, Little Compton Historical Society
April 13, 2020
Essay by Donna Gomez Silva
My Dad (Leonard Vincent Gomez) was Gramma Gomez’ second oldest child. Some of my memories include Gramma always wearing house dresses with an apron but the dresses were pale colors, never vibrant. Her hair was always neatly combed; I believe she used water on the comb and then bobbie pins to keep if out of her face. Her rice pudding was dry and burnt and blood pudding had an odor – to this day, I can’t eat either of them. Unlike the current Easter holiday, we always wore new outfits, it was the first day we could wear white shoes and went to Gramma and Grampa’s house to take pictures. I remember feeling excited and for some reason the pictures always seemed to be outside in front of the garage sliding door or in front of a car! I treasured the times when all her grandchildren, my cousins, would go with Gramma, one of us would sit on each side of her on the piano stool while the rest stood behind while she played church hymns. Christmas was always fun, the skinny trees, mostly trunk visible with the lights that resembled candles and lots of tinsel on the end of each branch. Our family lived on the opposite side of Little Compton and I used to look forward to Sunday nights. At the end of a long day of exhausting yard work, Gramma and Grampa would come over, they would sit in the kitchen while we washed and changed and then we would get in the car and drive to Gulf Hill Dairy in South Dartmouth where they treated us to ice cream; still today my most favorite treat of all!
Donna Gomez Silva, Granddaughter
April 16, 2020
[i] 1920 Federal Census