CANANDAIGUA — The 16 students in Mary Cowles’ fifth-grade class at St. Mary School have more than just homework and classes in common — they also share an honorary grandmother.
Margaret Cronotti, 91, “adopted” the children in November shortly after she was featured in Connections, a Rochester Democrat and Chronicle column by senior editor Jim Memmott. In his Oct. 21 column, Memmott wrote about Cronotti’s childhood experiences and her hasty departure from England shortly after the outset of World War II and marveled at her cursive penmanship.
“When was the last time you got a handwritten, personal letter? Chances are, in this age of e-mail and instant messaging, your mailbox has been filled with everything but first-class mail that actually is first-class, in style and in content,” Memmott wrote before explaining that a letter he received from Cronotti was written “in a clear and lovely hand,” and in cursive.
Cronotti’s letter inspired Memmott to hold a cursive-writing competition, which he announced in the Oct. 21 column. That inspired Cowles and her students not only to enter the competition, but also to write to Cronotti, who belongs to Guardian Angels Parish in Henrietta. Each of Cowles’ students wrote to Cronotti — in cursive — and many of them asked her to elaborate on her background as a dancer and her experiences during World War II. Cronotti answered each student’s letter, and a pen-pal relationship was born.
“We just wrote about ourselves, and we asked her questions about her history and World War II. It’s a good way to communicate,” 10-year-old Alex Gilges told the Catholic Courier.
“I think it’s fun to have a pen pal,” added Andria Denome, 10.
“It’s fun to get letters back from her and know how she’s doing and what it was like in World War II,” said Monica LaBorde, 10.
Cronotti said she enjoys writing to her pen pals as much as they like writing to her.
“It’s wonderful. I answer each one. They send me questions. They want to know what it was like before TV and computers,” she said.
The students sent cards to Cronotti at Thanksgiving, and somewhere along the line she and the students began referring to each other as her adopted grandchildren and their adopted grandmother. The honorary relatives finally were able to meet when Cronotti visited the class Dec. 14 with her daughter, JoAnne Tytler, and niece, Susan Derrick.
“Do you like being grandchildren?” Cronotti asked the class when she visited. “I like having you. At least now I’ve got to meet all of you. I love your letters. Keep writing.”
The students were just as curious about Cronotti when they met her in person as they had been in their letters, and they asked her to recount some of her favorite experiences for them.
“Oh, I have lots of stories to tell you,” she replied. “My favorite one is when I was going to make my first Communion as a young child.”
Cronotti’s sister, Betty, had been hit by a truck several days before Cronotti was to celebrate her first Communion.
“It knocked her down and rolled over her stomach and back. They took her to Highland Hospital and they put her on an icebed,” but didn’t expect her to survive, Cronotti recalled.
The nun in charge of Cronotti’s sacramental preparation had told the class that God often granted special prayers when children made their first Communion, so Cronotti and many of her classmates prayed for her sister, she said.
When the day of her first Communion arrived, Cronotti’s mother left the hospital just long enough to attend the Mass, and then immediately rushed back to the hospital. When she got there, she learned that Betty had awakened at the same moment Cronotti received the Eucharist for the first time.
“It was a blessing from God. She became a dancer. They told her she would never have children, and she had three children, and that’s one of them,” Cronotti told the students as she pointed to Derrick.
Cronotti told the students how her father, an auto mechanic, used to ride to motorists’ aid on his motorcycle, and how she and her sister used to run outside and look toward the sky whenever they heard the rare rumble of an approaching airplane. She also told them how she attended St. Boniface School in Rochester as a child, and how she worked as a dancer at age 16. Two years later, when her sister also turned 16, the pair traveled from city to city performing at nightclubs, she said.
The students enjoy piecing together Cronotti’s biography from the stories she told them in person and those she’s shared in her letters. Sydney Reber, 10, said her favorite story is about the funeral of Cronotti’s husband, Frank.
“They’re at the funeral, and when they gave her the flag, the sky opened up and it started to hail, and she said, ‘Frank, we know where you are,’ and it stopped,” Sydney said.
“I like how she tells about her life,” said Kendall Cyr, 10.
Robbie McCarthy, also 10, said he likes to hear Cronotti’s stories, especially those about World War II and her voyage across the Atlantic.
“She’s basically a primary source of information about World War II,” he said.
Cronotti, who has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren of her own, said she has enjoyed her first foray into adopted grandparenthood.
“These kids are so great,” she said. “They write the most beautiful letters. It’s just a thrill now to meet them.”