November 25, 2014
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When work is salvation

Rose Hewitt’s feet were in the sand and the wind blew through her silver hair. Before her was a panorama of blue, white and gray. The tide was out. Wavelets were breaking in neat orderly rows on the rocky shoreline. Not far away, her grandson, Michael “Mike” Hewitt, sat in an aluminum lawn chair with his toes in the water.

The Hewitts, who live in Providence, visit the beach at the end of Samuel Gorton Avenue two and three times a year. For Rose, it’s like coming home, although she hasn’t lived in Warwick for more than 70 years.

Sunday was one of those days to visit and conditions couldn’t have been better. They stopped at Iggy’s for chowder and clam cakes first and then drove to the beach. They had some company, but not too much. In the shallows, a couple of men quahogged while a young woman sat on the tailgate of a pickup truck and watched from behind orange-rimmed sunglasses. A kayaker with a fishing pole paddled by and, farther down the beach, people took in the scene from beneath wide-brimmed hats.

Rose is 91. She has trouble walking and sat on one of those walkers as a seat. On Sunday, she had one wish. She wanted to be standing in the water with a quahog rake, the way she used to.

“You would pull it along and there was this little squeak,” she said.

Squeak?

“Yes, it was a different sound, you could tell it was a quahog, not a stone.”

Rose was about 9 years old at the time. Her father didn’t care much for shellfishing so, “He would go up to the corner bar and have a few beers.”

Rose remembers a variety store perched on pilings – the pilings are still there – where you could buy cigarettes and candy and rent boats.

The quahogs were plentiful, which was a good thing since, as Rose put it, people were in and out of their home on Wilson Avenue in Oakland Beach all the time and a pot of chowder was always on the stove.

Her childhood sounded uncomplicated, although the lack of money played a role on why the family eventually left Warwick and returned to Providence. Her father, Harry Vanleuven, was a Providence firefighter for 18 years before he left the department and moved to Oakland Beach. He couldn’t find work here. The family left Oakland Beach and found a rental above a store across from the Conimicut School. But, in time, they went back to Providence.

I found myself intrigued by Rose’s story. So much of our lives depend on work and what I was hearing from Rose made that apparent. But, as I learned, it was also her salvation.

Some of us look at work as a rite of passage, even a penance that must be served before retirement and the golden years when you reap the rewards of a pension and time to do what you please. For Rose, her 20 years as a “Meter Molly” with the Providence Police Department, followed by 10 years as a night time matron, were a foundation in an otherwise difficult life.

She was the mother of two sons, both of whom she had to bury. She lost her husband to lung cancer when he was 56. Her second son died of mouth and throat cancer when he was 51. Both were smokers.

Her oldest son, Mike’s father, was killed in an automobile accident soon after he returned from Vietnam. Michael was only 5 months old. His father was 24 years old. Rose raised Michael, who continues to live with her. They work as a team. He makes her breakfast, drives her places and does the shopping. She does the laundry and the cooking.

Michael is out of work at the moment. He has worked as a janitor and, despite surfing the web and responding to employment notices, he has yet to find something. She worries about him.

Rose used to do needlework and knitting but, aside from Michael, there’s no one left to benefit from her labors.

“My friends are all gone, there’s no family, no one to give it to.”

This is not self-pity. On the contrary, Rose is upbeat. She reads a lot and enjoys watching “Judge Judy,” “The Price is Right” and “America’s Test Kitchen” and other cooking shows on public television. She follows politics and would like to see Buddy Cianci elected mayor.

Rose said she’s had “a miracle,” too. She was suffering from severe spasms earlier this year and then one morning they were gone.

Thinking back on all she has been through, one thing stood out.

“Working really saved me,” she said.

Such insight, and I had just stopped at the beach to see what was going on, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.


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