Nonagenarian Elizabeth Mendolia lets pols know what's on her mind
Photo by Gwyn McAllister
Governor Deval Patrick regularly receives letters from a Martha's Vineyard resident. So do first lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The concerned citizen, who makes it her mission to keep political figures apprised of issues, and also offer praise for a job well done, is 90-year-old Elizabeth Mendolia who lives in the Rest Home Unit at the Windemere Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.
Most of Ms. Mendolia's correspondence is directed to Governor Patrick. "I love him very, very dearly. He's a wonderful person," said the sprightly nonagenarian during a recent interview at Windemere. "I read Time magazine every week. Sometimes there are issues that I think are important. He's a very busy man. He can't know everything that's going on."
"I also write to Mrs. Patrick because I learned that she was married to an abusive husband for seven years. She helps abused wives. I thought that was wonderful. I thanked her for that."
Ms. Mendolia has always been interested in politics and politicians, both past and present. Her favorite historical figure is Thomas Jefferson. "I remember reading about Jefferson. How much he loved freedom. He's my favorite of the forefathers. I try to think like he did. I would love to visit Monticello," she said with sparkling eyes. "Oh, I would love that."
With a passion for history, the effusive Ms. Mendolia is a voracious reader of biographies of public figures and books on American history. Currently she is reading a book about Harry Hopkins, FDR's friend and closest advisor. "I asked for it and the library [West Tisbury] bought it for me," said Ms. Mendolia, "I loved Franklin Roosevelt so much — and his wife."
Ms. Mendolia often writes to the authors of books she enjoys. One of her favorites is Vineyard resident David McCullough. "Can you imagine all of his books are written on an old typewriter?" she said, adding with an impish smile, "I wouldn't be surprised if he wrote them with one finger."
Highly energetic, outgoing, and full of enthusiasm, Ms. Mendolia breaks into a winning smile often when discussing her favorite topics. Speaking with a slight New York accent, she talks in a very informed matter on historical events. She has an amazing memory and recalls names and dates with surprising ease.
The daughter of Italian immigrants, Ms. Mendolia grew up in New York City. Her father came to the U.S. when he was 20 years old. "The first minute he laid foot in America he got a job laying down the railroad tracks from New York to Bangor, Maine," she said.
Both Ms. Mendolia's parents were from Sicily, and they spoke only Italian. "I could not speak English when I entered school," she said. "The teacher thought I was being naughty and she hid me behind the piano. I had to learn all by myself."
Ms. Mendolia's father was a bricklayer who worked on the Empire State Building, among other projects in the quickly expanding city. "In 1930 when it was completed there was no work. It was the Depression. My dad had only $300 in the bank. Our rent in a cold water flat in Brooklyn was $24. He asked our wonderful landlord if he could pay half the rent until he could find a job and he did that for 10 years."
Although times were tough, the family got by. "You could stretch the money during the Great Depression," said Ms. Mendolia, "Milk was nine cents. Bread was ten cents. We only spent 25 cents a day, including utilities. It was a different time than it is now. A much different time."
World War II evokes vivid memories for Ms. Mendolia, "I was 19 when the war started in '41. I remember all our young boys going off to war. There was not one man — only the old men — in the city. We prayed very hard for the war to end."
Asked if she remembered V.J. Day, Ms. Mendolia beamed, "Do I ever. I was coming home into Grand Central Station from a trip with my girlfriends. I'm looking out the window and I see people throwing toilet paper out the windows. They didn't have anything else so they threw out toilet paper. How happy we were to see the boys coming home."
From early on Ms. Mendolia had a passion for fashion. Starting at age 15 she studied at the Barone Design Academy in Brooklyn and went on to a 25-year career as a dressmaker for the International Vogue Fashion Company.
Widowed young, Ms. Mendolia raised three children on her own. Her son Joseph, a master furniture maker, introduced her to the Island.
"Joseph came home one day and said, 'Mom, I found paradise.' I said, 'Where?' We got out the map and he showed me. It's a just a dot on the map."
She visited the Island on a number of occasions with her son who moved here 45 years ago. She retired in 1988 and later moved here. She moved into Windemere in 2004. "I love everything about it," she said, "Everyone's so lovable. It's a home away from home."
Her son Joe Mendolia visits her every Sunday. "We're very close," she said. In gratitude for the care his mother has received during her time at Windemere, Mr. Mendolia donated a beautiful handmade table that fetched $775 at last weekend's benefit auction.
Ms. Mendolia chose downtown Vineyard Haven as her first Island home because of the close proximity of stores. Having spent her entire life in New York City, she had never learned to drive. "I took trains and buses everywhere," she said.
She also developed the habit of walking a lot and she keeps at it. Although she relies on a rolling walker, Ms. Mendolia moves very quickly and jumps up from her chair often to fetch something to illustrate what she's talking about.
She is always eager to show off the letter she received in 2010 from Governor Patrick. She keeps it in a frame tucked away in her tidy, sun-filled room at Windemere. She also has a picture of the first family sent to her, along with a letter from Michelle Obama.
Ms. Mendolia participates in all of Windemere's many activities and often goes on outings with the other residents. However, reading and writing to her heroes takes up most of her time.
The number one recipient of Ms. Mendolia's letters is Gov. Patrick. "He must have a drawer in his cabinet full of them," she said. She would love to have a chance to meet the governor. "He's a just person," she said, "To me he resembles our forefathers. He's a wise man — a very wise man."
The letter writing campaign is Ms. Mendolia's way of taking an active role in our government.
"I try to help my country in my own little way," she said, "I feel it's an obligation. The country belongs to us."