Memorial Day: This one’s for you, Argentina “Tina” Jones, 1919-2022:
Some time after my daughter was diagnosed with autism in 1985, which was shortly after Sly Stallone‘s son was diagnosed with autism, my mother gave me some advice.
I’d already had plenty of advice from arrogant doctors, old-fashioned psychoanalysts, people on the street, speech therapists–and the rotten stench of the late Bruno Bettelheim, the “expert” who blamed icy mothers.
“Ok, mom,” I said, “whattaya got? More wonder drugs from GNC you heard about on TV?”
No, she said. “Why don’t you ask Tina what to do. She understands these things, maybe better than doctors. She’s wise and she may have an idea.”
Tina was our family housekeeper. She’d worked for our family since 1957, including our immediate family and my two aunts, and ultimately me, when I got married. Twice. And had two households in succession.
We all liked Tina. She was exotic, but very down to earth at the same time. She was worldly, but also folksy. And asking her did make some sense. Although it was a little weird.
Tina was honest and said she really couldn’t think of anything. But I did notice the way she treated Molly and the way she talked to her. She talked to her like she talked to all of us. And she treated her like nothing was wrong. And her example helped teach me to amend my ways. It came easy to Tina, not so for me.
My brother, who knew Tina since the day he was born, kept in touch with her after she retired, almost 30 years ago. He called her every so often to see how she was doing. But last week when he called, her phone was disconnected. “Something must be wrong,” he told me.
Tina had the same number as long as we knew her, and she would never let a bill go unpaid–or move, at this stage of the game. Her great-grandson, one of her many descendants, took care of her at home.
I googled her immediately and up came her obituary and all sorts of family pictures and information about her memorial service, which was held on what would have been her 103rd birthday on May 18th, which ironically was a few days before my brother called. (She actually died at the end of February.)
Through the 40 years she worked for our family she sometimes said she’d just come from, or was going to pay her burial insurance premium. And when I saw the funeral materials from the A.A. Rayner Funeral Home that was hosting Tina’s funeral at 318 E. 71st Street, I realized with all the months and years she ended up paying that premium, that she deserved quite a sendoff to heaven, a wonderful coffin and grave and a party to beat the band to send her on her way.
When Tina came to work for us back in the 50s, my mom said they were the the same age, and only three days apart. But I found out a few days ago, that while their birthdays were only three days apart, Tina was actually eight years older than my mom. And my mom was speechless when I told her the news a few days ago.
But it was true that their mothers really did have the same first name: Josephine.
Tina often told me about her life when she was getting ready to go home after work. She spent a lot of time in the bathroom getting cleaned up and beautifully dressed–from her underwear to her outerwear. And she applied an assortment of beautiful makeup made for black women before she left, after she fixed her hair up to the hilt, too.
It always intrigued me as to what all she was doing in the bathroom. So I would sometimes go into the bathroom with her, put the toilet lid down and and sit and watch her. And we’d talk.
When she was ready, she’d put on one of her beautiful jackets, and neatly fold one of the the short sleeveless house dresses she wore when she worked. And then put it–and the comfortable house slippers she wore while working–into a fancy tote bag filled with her wallet and a lot of magazines like Ebony and Jet and gossip and scandal newspapers that everyone loved back then. I always wondered what she’d be doing later, dressed and made up so beautifully for her trip home.
For many years, Tina had a gold cap on one of her front teeth with a star in the middle. That came off at some point (why I don’t know) and it took time to get used to her without it.
Sometimes she’d tell my mom things about her personal life (and I’m suddenly remembering the name of one of the serious boyfriends she had that she and my mom talked about) and she’d also tell my mom about her grandson who she was trying to keep out of the gangs.
She lamented how hard it was to do that (even back then) but she finally sent him down south to live with relatives–where she’d lived before migrating north during the Great Migration.
Speaking of which, I wish I’d asked Tina more about what it was like when she first got to Chicago and moved to the South Side.
She talked about baseball a lot with my dad. Tina knew as much as he did (and he knew everything) and they had a lot of fun talking about the players, the games and the scores. He loved to kid Tina about one thing or another, too–and she loved to laugh it up with him.
Tina had a sister named Myrtle, and Myrtle had a daughter named Jewel, and they both visited Tina now and then at our house–so Jewel and I could play together. We spent a lot of time playing pick-up-sticks, marbles, card games like “War,” and dolls, and we knitted, too, and had hula hoop contests. My mom said recently that she’d heard way back when that Jewel became a computer programmer in the early days before anyone even knew what one was. That didn’t surprise me. She was very smart.
Once when Tina was cleaning the first apartment I was living in with my second husband Paul, he had to run out one afternoon to be on a radio talk show about politics that was going to broadcast live. He was a journalist who had become Deputy Mayor under Jane Byrne and then became a political columnist at Chicago Magazine.
We said we’d listen–and we did.
We listened and the panelists quickly turned to the topic of race in Chicago. It was the early 1980s and the issue, like now, was a hot one. And I felt very uncomfortable sitting there with Tina listening. Neither of us said anything and I always wondered what she made of it, if anything.
I always wondered what went through her mind that afternoon.
Because we often did–when they happened–talk about things like the 1968 riots on the West Side after Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. And other news events that were all about race.
But this time we didn’t. We were silent.
I’ll never get the chance to ask her if she remembers that day. And our silence. And I’ll never know. But I can sort of speculate–if I could ask her about that day sitting by the radio in 1981–what she might say.
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Bonnie McGrath is an award-winning long time Chicago journalist, columnist, blogger and lawyer who lives in the South Loop. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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