By Linda Thomas
Hometown Weekly Correspondent
Singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” was Christine Grudinskas’ way of handling cancer.
But the story isn’t about a woman with cancer.
It’s about a woman living her life with a glad heart.
And whenever life presents a challenge for this Westwood woman, singing and praying bring her solace.
Grudinskas’ voice can be heard most Sunday mornings inside St. Margaret Mary Church as she stands in front of the faithful, reading scripture and singing hymns in the choir.
“I love to sing,” she said. “That’s what gets me through difficult times. And praying in song seem much easier and more meaningful to me than just the words.”
She retired in January 2016 and searched for something worthwhile to do with her time - something where she could make a difference to the community.
“I asked God to direct me to some sort of service,” she said. “And I waited until he showed me what he wanted.”
That March, she found the Peace & Justice committee of St. Margaret Mary.
The committee organized a food drive to benefit the Food Pantry, and Grudinskas joined the committee and offered to be the church’s liaison.
Later that spring, she started going once a week as a volunteer for the Westwood Food Pantry, which at the time was transitioning from being part of the Senior Center to a standalone entity.
Trish Tucke, operations manager of the Westwood Senior Center and board member of the Westwood Food Pantry, said her work had become more strenuous and she needed to find a way to keep the Food Pantry operating smoothly.
Supplies needed organizing. The garage needed to be cleaned out. And an inventory of the items needed to be prepared.
Then came Grudinskas.
“She was a lifesaver,” Tucke said. “It didn’t take much time for Christine and her husband, Tom, and her band of great friends to evolve the garage into a work of art. It’s so put together. It’s so neat. It’s so orderly. We know what we have. We know what’s in there … what’s good and what’s bad. It’s amazing.
“There is a God when I think about the work Christine has done and continues to do.”
A voice of the faithful
Music and books filled her home growing up.
Even as a toddler, Grudinskas loved to read. And she has fond memories of the Peter Pan and classic Little Golden books her mother would read to her and her younger sister every night.
Singing started as early as nine months old when her grandmother and mother heard her vocalize in her bedroom. She said it was her way of singing.
“I can remember my mother putting me and my sister in a big old-fashioned bathtub and she’d recite prayers, then sing her favorite songs like ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’,” Grudinskas said.
“We’d go, ‘again, again.’ Fortunately, mother, who was tone deaf, couldn’t sing. She was always off-key — and I was off-key when I was little.”
The parochial school she attended as a little girl hosted a television show, on which she would appear many Sunday mornings.
“I was eight, and I smiled a lot,” she said. “So, I was often on the show. They’d tell me to smile and to lip-synch because I was so bad. But as I got in my teens, my voice changed, and I could sing to some degree.”
But it’s in church she enjoys singing the most.
“Christine is a perfect example of a person living her faith,” said Elizabeth Ekborg, who moderates a faith sharing group at St. Margaret Mary Church.
“She turns to God during the good as well as the difficult times in her life, and personifies a person of value, faith, hope and charity,” Ekborg said.
“And in all of these she is humble.
“Her vast knowledge makes her a valuable asset to our group, and she shares in ways that help the rest of us to understand sometimes challenging material.
“Christine is an amazing lector with the ability to narrate Scripture in a way that stirs one’s soul. I believe her soul has been touched by God and one can hear it in her voice when she sings. Her connection to God is deep and profound, through the good in the challenges and through the words and song.”
Ekborg joined the church about five years ago and remembers the first time she heard Grudinskas read scripture.
“Hearing her read one of the stories from scripture was like having this phenomenal narrator,” Ekborg recalls. “She enunciates clearly, and her tone and reflection make it sound like you’re there in the story with her.”
Marriage out of war
Grudinskas grew up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, the product of a blue-collar father and stay-at-home mom.
“We didn’t have much money, but we always had plenty to eat,” she said. “My mother, a fine seamstress, made all our clothes. And we always had plenty of books and music.”
Her father was a career soldier from Naples, Italy. He served in the Italian Army in Ethiopia and Spain, but was captured during World War II and sent to POW camps in Arizona and later California, where a kind American officer helped him learn English.
“My father had an excellent ear for music,” she said. “He could play and improvise by ear and he was very good with languages. He was the highest ranked non-commissioned officer in the POW camp.”
Once Italy surrendered in 1943, the Italian soldiers were freed. Italian-American farmers in the area hired them. One of those farmers, who was originally from Philadelphia, hired Grudinskas’ father. It was through him that her father and mother, who knew the farmer, first connected.
After graduating from Archbishop Prendergast High School in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania in 1968, Grudinskas went on to attend Westchester College, about 25 miles west of Philadelphia, where she earned a degree in elementary education and a certificate in special education.
Her first job was teaching physically challenged kids in a small city called Pottsville in the coal-mining area of northeastern Pennsylvania.
“One of the things I remember the most was a boy who was a paraplegic,” she said. “He was very bright and when I came into the classroom, he was functioning at probably a first-grade reading level. I really worked hard for him, and he worked really hard, too.
“One of the best moments of my life was the day he said to me, ‘I can read this for myself.'"
Grudinskas developed an attitude of acceptance early on.
As a young girl, she met a family friend’s son, Chuckie, born with Down Syndrome. She played with him and saw something in him. She knew he didn’t go to a regular school, but other than that, he was simply Aunt Alice’s son.
“Children tend to accept things,” she said, “especially if everyone around them is accepting things.”
After she spent two years in the foothills of Pennsylvania, she went to graduate school for a couple of semesters, but her father suffered a heart attack and she came home.
“I then went to work in a facility run by the Servants of Charity, an Italian order consisting of priests and brothers. They ran residential programs for developmentally challenged boys and men. I was there from 1975 until two days before I got married in 1981.”
She was married on May 9, 1981, and she and her husband moved to Massachusetts, where he had grown up. They first settled in Hyde Park, and eventually moved to Westwood in 1997. At first, she wasn’t able to find a teaching job due to the effects and results of Proposition 2½. So, she found work in a bank then she went to work for a group of endodontics, where she stayed until she retired in 2016.
A Chance Audition
In 1985, a chance audition with the Walpole Footlighters opened a new chapter in her life.
Somebody at work read announcements from the old calendar page and encouraged her to audition for a part in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
“So, I went. I intended to sign up just to work props, but I thought I’d audition. I was scared to death and if I didn’t audition, I knew I wouldn’t audition ever. I got a small role, playing nurse Miss Preen, who got bit by a penguin.”
Subsequently, she’s worked in various fields of the theatre — from stage manager to assistant director to props and usher, as well as performer.
It was there she met Kay Blaha.
“Chris has a beautiful singing voice, and has great comedic timing,” Blaha said. “She’s a nice, calm influence back stage. But she also doesn’t suffer fools. She’ll tell you, ‘don’t you move those props,’ and she means it.”
The two women have shared a close friendship off stage and have been there for each other during difficult times.
“If you want something done, you ask Chris,” Blaha said. “And once she commits to something, no matter what, she’ll put everything else aside and you’ll be sure it’ll get done.”
Then in 1989, at the age of 38, Grudinskas was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. Extensive treatment stopped it, but three years later she developed ovarian cancer.
And that’s where singing the national anthem came in.
During her breast biopsy, she said she sang out loud most of the patriotic songs, then moved to showtunes and hymns.
Fortunately, she has been in remission for the past 30 years.
“People don't realize that singing is a physical activity,” she said. “When you do it right, it can give you real satisfaction and enjoyment, just like playing a sport.
“Music helps me find the joy in life — and inside me.”
Editor’s Note: Linda Thomas writes for Hometown Weekly Publications, Inc. For comments and suggestions, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org