Hello Everyone, It’s been a while…
When I was a little girl in the 1950’s, my Mom always took care of elderly people that she befriended. She had wanted to be a nurse, nurturing and caring for others, but couldn’t attend nursing school due to the fact that she only had an eighth grade education. Unfortunately, as a result, the nursing program wouldn’t accept her. Her Father had forbade her to go to high school, instead insisting that she stay home to help with her fourteen brothers and sisters.
She had a deep sadness about this throughout her life, so she reluctantly settled for being an nurse’s aid at San Jose Hospital in San Jose, California in her early 20’s. While working at the hospital, she rented a room in a little house directly across the street from the hospital. The little house was owned by an elderly, outspoken woman named Lottie (Sopher) Feliz. We all called her “Ma”. This is where my Mom and Daddy met, ironically, his Army Unit building was directly behind that same little house. But I’m branching off into another wonderful story… so back to Nonie.
My Mom had married Daddy in 1943. When Daddy came home from the war in 1945, they moved into a Quonset behind my Aunt and Uncle’s country home, where my sister was born in 1947. They lived there until I was born nearly seven years later until they realized they would need a bigger place to live. Ma and Jinks (Ma’s blind brother, now living with Ma in their childhood home together), both elderly and in need of care-giving, offered my parents the upstairs part of their old Victorian home. Everyone agreed that my parents would live there rent-free in exchange for my Mom cooking all of Ma and Jink’s meals and she would take care of their every need. In time, the house would be left to my parents when they passed, as neither of them had spouses or children. A living room and a bathroom were added upstairs and this became our home where I grew up and lived until I was 18. The responsibilities of caring for Ma and Jinks seemed to fulfill my Mother’s need to nurture the elderly, and gave my sister and I two people we could entertain in our backyard, presenting shows, singing, dancing, and charging them a penny apiece for the privilege to do so. Ma and Jinks had many visitors to this home, mostly eccentric and odd relatives but they also had a wonderful friend named Nona Campbell who came often to visit. I never learned how they knew her but this is my story and memories of Nonie, the lady who grew so near and dear to my heart.
My earliest memory of Nona Campbell, or Nonie as I called her, was hearing her deep lilting voice and her wonderful but hearty laugh while I climbed up onto her lap to sit. Her piercing blue eyes had softened with age and her charcoal black hair was now snowy white and pulled back from her face into a once-stylish bun. She was a woman of great girth, full-figured and she moved in a slow and graceful way. She was a devout Catholic and had a kind, easy-going way about her. It was clear that she was well-educated; she was up on current events and her love of John F. Kennedy, once he became our President, was evident by a portrait of him she hung proudly on the wall of her studio apartment.
By the time I was six, Mom would allow me to run full speed to the corner of our block and wait there for Nonie’s arrival. Mom stood in front of our house watching me, keeping track while I impatiently paced around. Nonie never learned to drive, something that was very common in those days, for women. So she faithfully and frequently took the city bus and rode the ten-plus blocks to our street, then walked another two blocks to our house. When I spotted her, I would run like the wind and throw my arms around her neck, then joyfully take her hand , swinging our arms while I talked her ear off, all the way back to the house. I often carried her black cloth purse which was nearly as big as I was.
I never remember her going into the upstairs part of the house (stairs were hard for her) where my immediate family lived. She would always come with the pretense of visiting Ma and Jinks who lived downstairs in the main floor of the house. Once she sat, I spent all of my time, climbing up into her lap, trying to settle onto her large and comforting lap, where I was very welcomed. I remember her sitting for hours on end, talking with Ma over the top of my contented head. I close my eyes now and recall her perfumed smells. I remember her flowing dresses, most of them styled from a time much earlier in her life. I remember her black laced shoes, so familiar to me and worn often by elderly women during that time. She was never harsh, never scolded me, never made me feel anything but like the most important person in her life. I believe and hope, in my heart, that perhaps I was.
She never married, never had children of her own.No siblings that I am aware of. I don’t believe she had any surviving family, at least at that point in her life. She must have been into her late 70’s at that time. Mom took her shopping often, with me in tow. Groceries, out to lunch, but Mom and I spent most of our quality time visiting with Nonie at her studio apartment. Housed in an a magnificent golden-colored classic Victorian two-story structure near the bustling downtown part of San Jose, I can see that incredible building in my mind’s eye like it’s standing before me now. I remember the ornate floral pattern of the carpeted stairs, the long dark hallway that we walked down to get to her front door. I sensed how difficult and painful those stairs became for her over time and yet, ever the consummate performer, she never complained.
My awareness of who she was as “Nona Campbell”, was not evident to me until I was around the age of eight or nine. When Mom and I would visit, Nonie would often play her 78 records on an old phonograph, at times, singing along softly under her breath as the three of us sat and listened. “Play it again, Nonie, please!”, I would beg. Not realizing that the deep mezzo-soprano voice on that scratched and tinny sounding record that spun and wobbled, really was, in f, MY Nonie. Stories shared between she and Mom went passed my young ears without much notice. All I knew was that I loved Nonie more than almost anyone else in the world and that’s all that mattered.
I remember she wore dentures and they must have caused her great pain because I never saw her with them in, ever. This never bothered me one bit.
She spoiled me terribly. She hand crocheted two pairs of mittens for me. The first must have been when I was quite young as I have no recollection of the excitement of opening them as a present. They were very small, creme colored and rather plain with a small thumb slot and a solid mitten part for all of my fingers. Even though it doesn’t get real cold in California, she felt a need to protect me from the elements so a few years later, she gifted me with another crocheted pair, these were my favorite by far. They were red (my favorite color), edged with creme-colored trim and had a decorative small creme flower atop the wrist part, which housed three small but brilliant red rhinestones. REAL rhinestones! I loved these so much and remember squealing with delight when I unwrapped the tissue paper and bow, neatly wrapped around them. I wore them every day until my hands would get so sweaty, I would just have to take them off or I would die from something I like to call hand-heat stroke. I have both pairs all these years later, in tact, wrapped securely in a plastic bag that my Mom thought would protect them for eternity. Mom did this with all of my nice things, for that, I am truly grateful.
Another time Nonie gifted me with a beautiful brass colored chain-link bracelet with two brass colored engraved hearts that dangled from the chain. One heart had my name, address and phone number on it, the other said “To Dawn, Love Nonie”. Mom was so worried I would lose it (how could I lose a bracelet with all of my personal information on it?) that she rarely let me wear it, it still sits in a special box in my jewelry box, I take it out sometimes, read the hearts and smile.
Over the years, there were many cards, with her fluid cursive, usually with a little money inside, wishing me a Happy Birthday, Happy Easter or Merry Christmas. Her cursive was distinct and as lovely as she was.
I have fragmented memories of Nonie’s scrapbook, with her in her costumes from an all girls high school, probably in Oakland or San Francisco and later the many operas she performed in, in in the bay area. She would often dress the part of the men in the plays and musicals during school, as her voice was deep and she was a very large boned and tall woman and made a believable male figure on stage. One picture shows her dressed as Robin Hood with a feathered cap and she carried a bow. Her deep mezzo voice, allowed her to comfortably sing the man’s part for each play or musical.
I don’t know much about her career back then except that she was locally well-known in the bay area during that time and her voice, beautiful. She owned an ornate costume dinner ring with three diamonds which was later left to me after she passed. Many years later in my life, I stupidly had the two of three diamonds removed and put into a ring setting for my husband (ex) and I. The jeweler had told me that the larger center diamond and one of the side diamonds were “European cut” which he stated made them much more valuable. All I cared about is that they had belonged to Nonie and were special to me just for that fact. When I asked about the third diamond which appeared cloudy to the naked eye, he said under the magnifier it had been damaged by something that oddly appeared to be cold cream. I smiled at his puzzled expression, and I said, “Yes, I’m sure it is.” Due to the difficulties in my life these days, I had to put those rings with Nonie’s diamonds in hock with a private party, where they remain still. Someday, perhaps, I will have them again.
Life got busy as I grew into a pre-teen and I saw less of Nonie. At age 13, Mom told me that Nonie had been moved to a rest home. When we visited her there, the room was very small and plain with a narrow twin bed that Nonie was reclined on, the room looked nothing like her beautiful studio apartment that I loved so well and Nonie seeming pale and frail to me. She must have been quite sick by that time because Mom asked me to go outside and read a book that I had brought along with me, while she sat and held Nonie’s hand. Reading was impossible so I daydreamed and noticed how sad and angry I was with myself, that I had not been to see her as much and I felt a twinge of guilt and the rush of overwhelming love for her. I didn’t want to think that she might be dying but deep inside me, I knew she was. Sadly, that was the last time I ever saw her alive. I don’t remember a funeral or service of any kind, but I’m sure my Mom set something up through the Catholic church. Nonie would have liked that.
Upon her passing, she had left my Mom several of her costumes that she had worn and a several 78 records of her singing. I have them still. I have the crocheted mittens, the brass charm bracelet and the dinner ring which I had modified, now, with regret. I have amazing memories of the time I spent with her which were always happy and filled with love, always. She loved me unconditionally, and I, her.
Move forward forty-nine years. Several days ago, someone posted a video of a beautiful and talented opera singer, still performing at age ninety. Many people “lose their voice” when they age but this woman’s tone and vibrato was crystal clear and strong as she stood on stage and sang like an Angel and I wept listening to her. Nonie’s face appeared in my mind’s eye at that moment. I wonder. In a spur of the moment I googled Nonie’s name and got two hits, both on EBay.
I was shocked to find and view two beautiful pictures of Nonie posted there for sale, standing on stage in costume. These were photos that I had never seen before, nor were they copies of the one or two small pictures she had given my Mom before she passed. They were listed by a company that specializes in pictures of 1920 opera stars and I was amazed that they had made their way to the state of Texas. The owner had the forethought to take a photo of the back of one of the pictures and there was Nonie’s familiar and lilting script, her flowing cursive was still etched in my mind.
I never knew this Nonie, standing tall on the opera stage. Young, vibrant, strong, her beautiful blue eyes and jet black hair encircling her lovely face in perfection. But it was her for sure. The eyes never change, do they? The kindness there was already evident.
I desperately wanted these pictures! I sent a message to the seller and told him how Nona Campbell had been in my life and that she was like a Grandmother to me. He replied and said that his company was grateful and delighted with the back story (though I made it brief) of how I knew her. I couldn’t wait for those pictures to arrive!
Nonie’s pictures arrived today on this rainy day in Portland. The edge of one picture, which has a thin white border around it has grown brittle and got a bit munched in shipping but the picture itself is fine. I thought I would cry my eyes out when I held these photos in my hands but a very strange thing happened. I became very calm and very quite. As I stared into her eyes, I could hear her gentle speaking voice, her deep comforting laugh, her exquisite mezzo-soprano operatic voice singing softly while I sat comforted in her warmth. I could hear her in my head, thanking me for bringing her back home.
I have searched the Internet the past several days and there is nothing else about her on Google, Ebay, Pinterest or any other vintage opera sites. The chances are one in a million that on the 5th of July, 2016, 49 years after her passing, that I would find these. I feel embraced once again by her love, her kindness and a strange and giddy kind of hope. The odds of me finding her again, after all these years, are quite simply, must be one in a million…just like her.
I post Nonie here, for you all to feel her energy, her love and the joy that she brought to my life. Welcome home, Nonie, welcome home.