A Life: Roxie Tanzi Roberts, 1919-2013; ‘She Made Time to Listen to Each of Us’
Wearing a brown suede coat, Roxie Tanzi Roberts poses outside her family home in Hanover in 1965. Roberts’ children called her “little brown Mommy” because she loved to wear the color, which they said set off her dark brown hair and eyes. (Family photograph)
Roxie Tanzi Roberts and Jack Roberts pose with their children at daughter Carol Baker’s wedding in 1988. (Family photograph)
Roxie Tanzi Nichols works at her typewriter in 1944. At that time, she was secretary to the superintendent of Hanover schools. (Family photograph)
Hanover — If you’ve lived in Hanover long enough, you might remember the lively dark-haired woman who pulled her groceries home in a little red wagon.
Roxie Tanzi Roberts never learned to drive, but that didn’t stop her from reaching out to family and friends with soup, stories and song. Her five daughters, including Ann McAllister, recently gathered around McAllister’s dining room table to remember Roberts, who died Oct. 22, 2013 at 94.
Roberts grew up in the warm bustle of the family business, the Tanzi Brothers grocery store on Main Street.
Like the Hanover institution, Roberts’ home when she was raising her own family was a friendly, popular place. Their house, on the site of what is now the Richard W. Black Community Center, was situated in a neighborhood full of familiar faces.
“We were all surrounded by aunts and uncles,” said McAllister, who lives in Meriden. “Because it was a family home, nobody ever knocked. Everybody would walk right in.”
“Everybody” included relatives in search of nightcrawlers from their big garden, or a free haircut from Roxie Tanzi’s second husband, Jack Roberts, a barber. It was also a popular way station for Hanover High School classmates of the Roberts children.
“Because we lived near the school, it was pretty easy to come over to the Roberts house and have a snack,” McAllister said.
Being from a big family herself, Roberts enjoyed the interaction and always welcomed her children’s friends. Jack Roberts might have longed for a little more privacy, but “he kind of knew that’s what he got when he married mom,” McAllister said, making her sisters laugh.
After graduating from Hanover High School, Roxie Tanzi earned a degree from Becker College in Worcester, Mass. She returned to Hanover, where she became secretary to the superintendent of Hanover schools and met the Dartmouth student who would her be husband for a few short years. In 1941, she and Dr. Robert S. Nichols married. They lived in Philadelphia, where Nichols trained as a medical corpsman for the Navy. After he shipped out to the Pacific during World War II, Roxie and their baby, Carol, returned to Hanover. Nichols died in the Pacific in 1945, and Roxie and Carol stayed with Angelo and Della Tanzi, Roxie’s parents.
In 1950, she married Roberts, a World War II veteran who had a son from his first marriage. They lived in the Tanzi family home in Hanover, where Roberts became the owner of Tony’s Barber Shop and Roxie worked at home, raising their children. Her daughters remember the emphasis she placed on education. Roberts expected the children to earn good grades and used big words as a way of enlarging their vocabularies.
“You’ve got to be able to portray yourself as a person who knows what they are talking about, using correct words, not ‘lazy words,’ ” McAllister recalls her saying. “She really valued intellect.”
But she wasn’t stodgy. Standing just over five feet tall, Roberts is described in her college yearbook as “small, but with sparkle and dash.”
Laura Dow, of Hanover, remembers Roberts as a “great gal” and a “lovely piano player.” They chatted whenever they met in the neighborhood and ice skated together at Dartmouth’s Thompson Arena.
“We used to have a lot of fun when we were still working years ago,” Dow said. “She was very smart and she was nice to be with. ... I liked her a lot.”
In high school, Roberts joined several singing groups, and continued to play music throughout her life.
“She loved to tap dance for us in the living room, blow on a bugle before meals and sing Christmas carols with all of us gathered around our piano,” her daughter, Mardi McGregor, wrote in a piece for her memorial service.
Later on, she played piano at Hanover Terrace, where her sister lived. Before his death in 2003, her ailing husband moved into Lebanon Center Genesis ElderCare. Tanzi frequently caught a ride with her daughter or took a bus to play for residents there.
She favored classical music and John Denver, and also made a point of keeping up with whatever her children were listening to, including The Moody Blues, The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Even the scandalous Elvis Presley didn’t scare her off.
“She was very open to everything,” her daughter Carol Baker said.
In the 1970s, her children wanted to paint the family kitchen tangerine and brown.
“She said, ‘Go for it,’ ” daughter Debbie Carr, said, laughing. “That’s the kind of woman she was.”
And her open attitude extended to people, as well.
“She always gave everybody the benefit of the doubt,” Carr said.
Growing up, Roberts had an adventurous side. She once got scolded for scaling the outside of St. Denis Catholic Church, and in high school, earned the nickname Tarzan “because she was such a tomboy,” McAllister said.
As a mother, she shared her sense of fun with her children. Together, they would picnic in Dartmouth’s Chase Field, land that had once belonged to Angelo Tanzi. Over a meal of hardboiled eggs, fried chicken, fruit, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, they’d watch the football players or listen to the college band.
“It was just wonderful,” McAllister said. “It was like a big deal.”
Sometimes, they’d hike the Appalachian Trail to Velvet Rocks or wander Angelo Tanzi’s property along Mink Brook, land that is now protected. As children, Roberts and her siblings learned conservation from their father.
“He’d take them on walks in the woods, and he’d point out all the names of the trees and the plants and the flowers,” McGregor said of her grandfather. “She really became appreciative of nature.”
Roberts and her sister Mary passed along the knowledge about nature that Angelo Tanzi had given them.
“We got to know all kinds of birds and even some of the songs of the birds, and flowers, all that,” McAllister said.
When her children were older, Roberts worked as a secretary at Dartmouth College, first in the medical school library and later in the government department. As she neared retirement, a professor in the department wrote a playful poem lamenting her departure.
“So celebrate Roxie, who’s turned 65,” Charles B. McLane wrote, near the end of the 26-line poem. “There’s none among us who acts more alive.”
As full of life as she was, Roberts sometimes struggled with health problems, her daughters said. The youngest in her family, Roberts was just 4 pounds, 14 ounces at birth. While her children were growing up, she suffered from asthma, a condition that “would really take away from the quality of her life,” McAllister said.
The girls would clean and dust, to help their mother avoid the attacks that would land her in the hospital, sometimes for a weeks at a time. They remember babysitters and aunts arriving in the middle of the night as their mother was whisked away.
“We’d see her being carried down the stairs, blueish, almost,” McAllister said. “She’d get better and she’d be spunky again.”
After their father suffered a stroke, Roberts became his caretaker for the next decade. During that time, she also managed to overcome colon cancer. She stayed active, ice skating into her 70s and taking long walks on Hanover side streets. But after a series of mini strokes affected her balance and vision, she moved to Lebanon Center Genesis ElderCare, where she lived until her death this fall.
“She was a fighter,” Carr said. “And she was right up until recently.”
And recently, the women said, they realized something else that was remarkable about their mother.
“She made time to listen to each of us,” her daughter Mary Tremblay said.
Sitting with a child at the kitchen table, she would ask about her classes, her boyfriend, her interests, making each feel as if she were the most important person in her life.
“You always thought it was about you, like you were the favorite daughter,” McAllister said. “But it was everybody.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.