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A Life: Marjorie “Midge” Lois Riviezzo, 1925-2014; ‘Meek as She Was, She Didn’t Have a Lot of Fear’

Marjorie "Midge" Lois Riviezzo in a family photograph taken about ten years ago. (Courtesy photograph)

Marjorie "Midge" Lois Riviezzo in a family photograph taken about ten years ago. (Courtesy photograph)

Claremont — Midge Riviezzo’s oldest child likes to say she grew up inside a guitar case.

“When I was little and Mom and Dad would have practice, she’d ... literally put me in her guitar case, and that’s how she watched me,” Sandy Thomas said.

Besides her family, music was probably the most important part of Riviezzo’s life.

Marjorie Blanchard, a Claremont native, met her husband through the art. A friend, Rosie, invited her to come to her house and jam. There, she met Rosie’s brother, George, who had just gotten out of the Army.

“They hit it right off,” Thomas said.

Married in 1946, their life together took them to Windsor and Cornish, Claremont and Lempster, and for a period of time they wintered in Florida. They raised seven children, including Patrick, whose earliest memories are of jam sessions at their home.

“You were exposed to a lot of different types of music and unusual instruments,” including the ukulele, mandolin and four-string banjo, Patrick Riviezzo said. In the summers, their garage was transformed into an impromptu music hall.

“I didn’t really think much of it because it’s just how life was,” he said. “But in retrospect, I look back and think that it was really fun.”

Midge Riviezzo could be shy, but it apparently didn’t affect her onstage. She played rhythm guitar and sang with the Green Valley Players, the house band for Green Valley Ranch in Brownsville.

She had “a very nice voice, a very soft voice,” said Earl Gregoire, a band member who played fiddle, mandolin and drums. “She was very special, and everyone liked her.”

The Riviezzos, Gregoire and his wife, Val, and lead guitarist Rudy Vigneault founded the Brownsville dance hall in 1967, Gregoire said. They had financial backing from Clarence Prevo, a local businessman who died in 2010.

“Couples-only,” the dance hall was “a nice respectable place,” Gregoire said. “It wasn’t a stag place ... That way we kept away from trouble.”

The venue proved popular, and they were able to repay Prevo’s investment, said Riviezzo’s son, Dennis Riviezzo.

On Saturday nights, people came from all over. The band played waltzes and fox trots, polkas and soft rock, Gregoire said, but nothing brought customers to their feet like the cowbell announcing a square dance.

“Boy, everybody would hop up on the floor,” he said. “That’s what most people came for.”

George Riviezzo, nicknamed “Zeke” by his fellow musicians, was a vivacious front man and bass player, and also called the square dances. He gave his wife the nickname “Midge,” after a friend.

The group played benefits, weddings and anniversaries; performed live on a local radio station; and even cut a few 78s.

More than a decade after it opened, they sold the hall and the Green Valley Players stopped gigging, Gregoire said.

“We had a lot of laughs right onstage. I miss it to this day.”

Riviezzo taught her sons Dennis and George to play guitar, and she and the children would often sing together at home. She sounded a lot like country music singer Kitty Wells, Thomas said, and her favorite musicians included Anne Murray and Jim Reeves.

She’d learn the dance hall songs while she cooked, and Thomas remembers singing harmony as her mother turned out pies, eggplant Parmesan and other family favorites. Then, about 17 years ago, a split larynx changed everything. Riviezzo’s voice became shaky and “would do all sorts of funny things,” Thomas said. “I think hurt her more than anything because she loved to sing.”

In addition to the music, Riviezzo’s children remember her habit of putting others ahead of herself.

Her defining trait was an “endless, endless willingness to give,” Patrick Riviezzo said. She and George worked hard — a disabled World War II veteran, he was a Maytag repairman and later delivered propane; Midge worked in Goodyear’s Windsor plant, making rubber soles for shoes. Still, money was tight.

When the kids needed something, “she would go without and make sure we had it,” Patrick Riviezzo said.

Riviezzo was a firm believer in helping anybody that she possibly could, Thomas said. The big holiday dinners she so loved always extended beyond the family to include teachers or students or colleagues, “somebody that had no place to go.”

When Thomas was in her 30s, she enrolled in cosmetology school. When she was about halfway done, finances became a problem, and she decided to drop out.

“My parents would not hear of it,” said Thomas, who went on to have a more than 30-year career in the field. They came up with the money and made the monthly payments until she finished school, got a job and paid them back.

“She lived for us kids,” said George, Riviezzo’s oldest son.

Even when she was working full-time and playing in the band, she managed to make time for them, Thomas said.

“We had a lot of love, a lot of understanding.”

And she was quick to brag about her children, her daughter, Seba Skinner, said. “She was so proud of all of us.”

“A gem,” “softhearted,” “kind,” are words Dennis Riviezzo used to describe his mother. But, he added, “meek as she was, she didn’t have a lot of fear.”

Because Riviezzo raised them “from little up to be basically respectful,” she didn’t need to be tough very often, Thomas said. But there were times.

The story of her breaking a broom over George’s back has become family lore.

“She was cleaning and asked me to do something, and I said, ‘Do it yourself, old lady,’ ” George Riviezzo said. The family has long laughed at the memory, and he doesn’t hold that “hard love” against his parents.

They were trying their best to raise their children well, to teach right from wrong, he said.

“I personally think that they succeeded.”

For her part, Thomas recalls a certain car ride and a backhand so fast she never saw it coming.

“We were going down the road, and she said something and I mouthed off. Well, mister. But I never sassed her again.”

After her husband died in 1991, Riviezzo lived with her children, including George for five years, and Thomas and her husband Paul for about 20 years. Although she stopped playing guitar, she continued to crochet and quilt. Thomas remembers showing her a complicated quilt pattern her sister had picked out.

“Seba wants this, but Mom, I can’t do this,” she remembers saying.

Riviezzo looked at the pattern and then at Thomas.

“What do you mean you can’t do it?” she said. “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.”

They bought the material and knocked it out in no time.

“She had a ball making that with me,” Thomas said. “She was in her glory just making that type of stuff.”

Riviezzo, who lost a kidney in her 40s, died from kidney failure at age 88. She also suffered from Alzheimer’s, and when she was too ill to be cared for at home, moved to Elm Wood Center, a nursing home in Claremont. But she remained close with her children and their families.

“Us kids were always there, one of us,” George Riviezzo said. “We were there a lot because of the way my mom raised us. It’s kind of like a never-ending loop.”

With their help, she maintained her habit of giving. Dennis made sure there was chocolate in her room for visitors and staff. Seba brought treats for the resident cats, which slept on Riviezzo’s bed. And the Thomases were in charge of the beef jerky.

Riviezzo bought the meat, which Paul and Sandy cut, marinated and dehydrated.

“We did all the labor, she took all the glory,” Paul Thomas said, laughing.

She liked to hand it out at family Christmas parties.

“I’d have a great big garbage bag, sometimes two, filled with these baggies of beef jerky,” Sandy Thomas said. “She would beam, it meant so much to her to give out that beef jerky.”

As Riviezzo’s health faltered, Dennis talked with her about dying. “What do you think, Mom, do you think it’s time for you to go? Are you ready to go, or do you want to hang on?”

“I have to (hang on),” she said. “My children all need me.”

And she so enjoyed the several generations of family members who came to see her, perhaps she didn’t want to say goodbye.

“ ‘There’s always someone here to visit with me,’ ” Dennis remembers her saying. “And it made her so proud.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.