My grandmother is one of the strongest women I’ve ever known, and I’m not just saying that because she’s mine. I honestly believe she’s probably one of the toughest, most stubborn woman I’ve ever met. Today, I kissed her forehead for probably the last time. At 102 years old she has lived an incredibly long and full life.
With every shallow, slow breath she took this morning I thought about the number of moments she has taken in; the amazing events she lived through; the number of people she’s affected. I remember the stories she told me when I was a little girl, and how vivid they were. She had an incredible life story and I told myself I would one day write about it. What better way to honor her life than to retell some of her most fascinating moments.
Here is her life abridged…
She was born, Visitacion “Visi” Rodriguez on July 6, 1909 in the small town of Coamo, PR to a Spanish father and a mother of French, Italian, and Taíno decent. They were a poor family and her father whom we know very little about, died just three years later in a horse carriage accident. By the time she was 9 years old her mother left her with family friends after becoming ill with consumption. She recalled crying desperately for her mother every night, asking her caretakers when her mother would return from the hospital for her, to which they replied, “Your mother will come for you when the green horse arrives.” One day while she was playing by a nearby stream two young girls approached her and told her they could take her to her mother. The three of them walked 10 miles to Ponce, and she was lead straight to her dying mother’s bedside. My grandmother never saw those girls again and she swears they were angels.
Her mother died shortly after, and Visi was taken in by her aunt who was already looking after her sister and three cousins. As the oldest of the cousins, she helped to support the family by quitting school after the eighth grade to work as a housekeeper for a rich local woman. She worked for very little pay but it was enough to buy shoes for the rest of the girls to continue attending school.
At 16 she was approached outside of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, by a black vehicle she has described as something out of the old television series, The Untouchables. Inside the car was Lieutenant Commander Virgil Baker; he was seeking a housekeeper/nanny to help him look after his estate and raise his children as his wife was mentally ill. My grandmother accepted the position and for a period 19 years she was their “Maria”.
What was most curious about that period of her life was that the Baker’s home in which she lived was located on an old spanish fort. U.S. Lt. Baker, who was in charge of all naval activities on the island, acquired El Fortín San Jerónimo (San Jeronimo Fort located in San Juan) and its surrounding land in 1921 as an assignment or ‘free lease’ from the U.S. Government (a “gift” as described by my grandmother), and on top of the historic fort was where he built his home.
During her appointment, Lt. Baker asked her to marry him several times but she viewed him more like a father and felt it was time for her to move on with her life, so he found her a secretarial position at the U.S. Naval Base where she learned shorthand, typing, and improved her English skills.
The year was 1945 and WWII had recently come to an end when a handsome captain walked into her office. He was unable to take his eyes off of her and begged her supervisor to have her accompany him to dinner that evening.
His name was Capt. George Thomas Dungan, a Merchant Marine during the War, who had been at sea nearly his entire life, keeping with family tradition. In fact, during the 1920s he was the youngest captain on the entire eastern seaboard.
My grandmother was not initially taken by him, as her heart had recently been broken by an American Soldier who had informed her earlier that week that he had to return to his wife, but George was a persistent man, and convinced Visi to see him every night that week. On their last evening out, she told him she was moving in several days to New York City for a change of scenery. He offered to take her to NY but informed her that his ship would need to port in New Orleans first. She declined his offer as she had already booked her passage.
She left her sister in her position at the Naval Base, just in case she hated New York and needed to return, and got on a boat packed with other passengers also looking to start new lives. The journey was awful, and it was no luxury liner with plenty of sea sickness going around. When she arrived in New York City, things did not improve. It was the dead middle of winter and she began to question her decision.
She moved in with her aunt and cousin who had moved to the city a few months earlier and took a job as a seamstress. Six months later there was a knock on their apartment door. Her Aunt opened the door to a tall, dark, and handsome Captain George T. Dungan. He had contacted her sister at the Naval Base to get her address. My grandmother says he swept her off her feet, taking her to all the best restaurants and night clubs, making her feel like a princess.
That same week he proposed to her and asked her to wait for him for 6 months until he returned from his next trip at sea. She did, and they got married on a gold mining tour in Mexico. After they moved to New Orleans to start a family, but due to my grandmother’s age of 35, they had difficulty getting pregnant. After several years of trying, and a miscarriage of twins, my grandfather left the shipping industry and they relocated to Birmingham, Alabama where at age 43 my grandmother finally gave birth to their first and only child, Gazelle. And the rest is history…
My mom, Gazelle, has been an amazing daughter – taking care of her mother over the past 5 years. Two very amazing women.
Grandma Visi, I will never forget you.
Visitacion “Visi” Dungan
July 6, 1909 – August 9, 2011