Before there was an Andrée Pesci, there was an Andrée Descheneaux of Fairfield, Connecticut.
Her father, Ernest, was French Canadian from Trois-Rivières on the Saint Laurence seaway, and her mother Margaret was Slovakian, a delightful lady, sweet but, as concerned her children, a bar of tempered steel.
I first noticed Andrée around 1963 as she was performing a solo dance at Western Connecticut State College in Danbury, Connecticut. I did not know, until later in our budding relationship, that she had been legally blind since birth, largely because this was a matter of indifference to both Andrée and her mother, who treated her no differently than her siblings, a brother Ernest and twin sisters Sandra and Sonia.
By the time The Lions Club came knocking at her mother’s door, Andrée had excelled in all her elementary school classes. She had an ear for music and sang wonderfully well. Much later, early in our marriage, she and a piano accompanist opened a new venture, a club in Glastonbury called Matty’s Place, later owned by Gordie Howe, “Mister Hockey” of the Whalers.
She excelled as well in college. She made Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities and mastered fencing, although she had been stricken since birth with pendular nystagmus, a condition brought about, her mother said, by a forceps delivery. Those afflicted with pendular nystagmus are unable to focus because their eyeballs oscillate quickly back and forth. She also was subject to migraines.
The Lions visitors told her mother that if she permitted her daughter to attend what later became WESTCONN – then Danbury State Teachers College -- the Lions Club, devoted to the sight impaired, would pick up the tab for all expenses including tuition, books and readers.
Her mother told the visitors she’d think about it.
Fast forward four or five years. After graduating from WESTCONN, Andrée was told the college would not certify her to teach in public schools. The reason given her was that she was legally blind and could not be expected to teach sighted students.
Almost immediately she wrote to then Governor John Dempsey, who had a soft spot in his heart for the visually impaired, recounting her accomplishments in great detail and asking the governor if he could intervene with the decision makers.
He wrote back there was nothing he could do. So, Andrée secured a teaching position at a Catholic girl’s high school in Greenwich Connecticut – where she, unsurprisingly, excelled.
One of her students, upon graduating from college, secured a writing position at the Wall Street Journal. This student used to travel by bicycle from Greenwich to Stamford, Connecticut to visit with her former teacher, where Andrée had found a second position at yet another Catholic girl’s school.
She wrote again to Dempsey citing her recent accomplishments and employment as a teacher in Catholic schools. He wrote back saying – sorry, there was nothing he could do.
Andrée later attended Fairfield University, where she met Father Bond, who taught a course in aesthetics, and greatly influenced her. Bond was the author of four novels, one concerning the establishment, growth and development of Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford under the tutelage of a French Mother Superior who spoke a kind of pidgin English accented with mellifluous French overtones.
Andrée’s world, thanks mostly to her mother, was populated by heroic personalities who regarded difficulties as bridges to success.
On receiving her masters in American Studies from Fairfield University, the first college in Connecticut a degree in this new discipline, she wrote once again to Dempsey, who wrote back – “Andrée, you win,” after which she was certified to teach in public school.
It will be well to note here that the vision impaired are too clever for words. When you cannot rely on your eyes, you rely on your wits and other of your senses, including your common sense, sometimes misused by those who are too perfect for words. Every hour of every day of her life, Andrée, through persistence and strength of character, leapt over the obstacles put in her path by those who failed to understand the full range of her courage and persistence.
One day, picking Andrée up in Greenwich, I noticed she had covered her blackboard with scribbling’s, her lesson plans for the day.
“Andrée, what use is all this? You can’t see the board.”
“They don’t know that.”
They didn’t know she was blind. She had memorized the scribblings on the blackboard, pointing to this or that text as she went along. During her tests, she patrolled the aisles, and there was no cheating.
One day, I had a problem finding a specific pair of socks in a cluttered sock drawer. It took her about five seconds to discover the invisible socks.
“Andrée, how is it you can’t see and I can see – and you can find the socks, but I can’t?”
In her most tender, teacherly voice: “Well, Donald, we see through the eye, but with the brain.”
Dempsey was himself familiar with the surmounting of difficulties. He succeeded Abraham Ribicoff as Connecticut’s governor, large shoes to fill, who left office to become a member of President John Kennedy’s administration. Dempsey was the first governor since the colonial period that had been born in Europe -- Cahir, County Tipperary, Ireland -- and began a 30 year period in which Connecticut, a former puritan colony, had only Catholic governors in office.
At a time of sometimes undisguised anti-Catholicism, this arc, pointed in the direction of political equity, was revolutionary. Governor Ella Grasso, the first in the nation woman governor who had won office in her own right, was a regular attendant at Saint Mary’s Church in Windsor Locks.
Andrée’s first public school employment was at Ridgefield High school, where she taught American Literature, which included American History and Drama. She also instituted a Film Study course, Composition and, a rarity at the time, semiotics and vocabulary. And no one mumbled in her classes.
Two of her students told her, forty years after they had graduated, that she had significantly influenced them. One became a lawyer who had, he said, home schooled his children largely because of her influence. He saved and framed a fairly negative progress report she had written to his parents because, she felt, he was not fulfilling his potential.
The second student, a lifelong friend of the first, also saved photostat copy of a decades old favorable comment she had made on one of his papers. He recently sent her two books, one a collection of humorous stories he had written concerning his boyish adventures at a camp, and the second a memoir he had edited of a Jewish family displaced in a prisoner of war camp in Poland and Russia.
Both remarks, kept for so long a period of time like pressed flowers of the field in an old book, fragrant with age, provide testimony of how the heart, an always young athlete, leaps over time to set the always living past blazingly before our eyes.
Her sight had grown worse as a result of the close work she had done teaching. Dempsey would have been proud of her subsequent 21 years laboring for the state. She moved quickly through the ranks from an intake worker to a fraud investigator to a Public Assistant Consultant at central headquarters in Hartford.
During her last few years with the state, her husband noticed that she had begun to withdraw. As he put it, “That world conquering smile of yours has dimmed,” possibly the result of her failing sight.
All this changed with the arrival of Jake from Fidelco Guide Dogs for the Blind operating out of Bloomfield, Connecticut. Jake, the most regal of German Shepherds, brought her out of the doldrums and liberated her spirit. She was independent once again, a force of nature. This independence was Andrée’s natural state and, once recovered, it would suffer no diminution.
As a fraud investigator, Andrée saved the state millions of dollars. There was a hitch, of course. Saving money reduces the budget for the succeeding year. Such cost-saving measures were not looked upon kindly by state administrators who depended upon fixed budget increases.
As an energy consultant, she saved state expenses by advising state’s clients how they might more economically spend taxpayer funds.
As her mother had done when Andrée was yet a restless but unfailingly obedient child, Andrée became masterful at saving pennies, which both of us used, in successive trips to Europe, to see the Old World before her sight deteriorated altogether. We traveled on separate trips to Italy, three times, to France, three times, to Spain, to Scotland, and then as our funds diminished, to places in the United States, most memorably to a horse farm in Tennessee.
Riding horses was an easily fulfilled passion with Andrée. Everywhere we went, we searched out horses and military cemeteries. In a small, overlooked cemetery in Italy, glistening with white, sun-washed stones, we paused and prayed at the tomb of Audie Murphy’s best friend. We did this, among other reasons, to honor Andrée’s father, Ernie, who operated in four branches of the service and had in his basement in Fairfield, Connecticut, ration cans from World War II and a firing range. Her brother, with whom she was very close, served on the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier and later became a Fairfield police officer.
All these good people, including members of my own family, the heroes of my boyhood, are now gone.
“I wish,” Andrée said to me a couple of weeks go, “there were something more permanent than a fleeting memory I could keep among my treasured things so that beauty will not be lost forever.”
Well now my beauty, perhaps this poor offering may serve as a casket of memory. Had you written it, it would have been far better -- but also, more boastful.
And both of us know how you hate to boast about your triumphs.