SHIRLEY — The cameo of Frances Gray that appeared in a local newspaper shows an attractive, dark-haired young woman with a memorable smile and a lifetime ahead of her.
The vintage photo — her high school graduation picture — is a birthday announcement.
Gray turns 80 years old next week. Her hair is white, but her smile recalls the girl in the picture, as cheerful now as it was then.
Frances Conza grew up in Framingham, where she lived with her parents and sister, Anna Mason, who now lives with her. Their home was near the former Framingham Hospital where she was born and later attended nursing school, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Her first job as a nurse was at Worcester City Hospital. Her last before she retired was at UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester. She worked there for 20 years in the emergency room.
It was tough, she said, particularly her final, “terrible” year. Dirt bike accidents “right and left,” she said. Too many kids irrevocably hurt.
“It broke my heart,” she said.
But there wasn’t time to cry.
“You have to perform,” she said.
Once, she said, the tears came as she drove home after a harrowing Thanksgiving day. Three “young” men, all under 50 years old, had been brought in after suffering heart attacks she called “armchair coronaries” because the victims were watching football on TV.
“It was so sad,” she said. “I went straight through a red light.”
A police officer stopped her.
“I couldn’t stop crying He told me to go on,” she said. “I didn’t get a ticket.”
She retired on Halloween when she was 70. The irony isn’t lost on her. Long ago, nurses were thought to be witches, she said, because their herbal cures were mistaken for black magic.
During an interview in her Center Road home where she moved with her late husband, David, nearly 50 years ago, she shared stories — funny, happy, sad, tragic, rooted in family memories, varied interests, public service and her many years in town.
When the Grays moved here in 1952, neighbors were few and far between, she said, but some of the same families are still here.
She and her husband had two children then: twins Michael and Mark, born in 1951. Frances had eight kids in six years. Margaret, “Kiki” was born in 1953, Mitchell in 1955, Matthew in 1956, Marilyn in 1957, and another set of twins, Miles and Martin, in 1958.
Seven of her grown children now live in New England. She lost a son years ago.
Matthew was 18 months old when he died in a household accident. Gray’s eyes clouded as she recounted what happened. The active little boy she’d thought was napping had climbed into the washing machine and drowned.
“I will never get over it,” she said.
David Gray died in 2004. They were a disparate couple, physically. He was over six feet tall, and she’s barely five feet. She likes to eat as much as she likes to cook, she said, but her husband was so skinny “his bones showed through his skin if he stood in the light, like an x-ray.”
During their early years, he worked in a tannery in Ayer, his hometown.
“He went to work at GM after it burned down,” she said.
Money was tight. He made $60 a week, and the mortgage was $64 a month.
“We squeezed our pennies,” she said.
She stretched the food budget with vegetables from the garden. Still an avid gardener, she favors flowers now and belongs to the Shirley Garden Club.
She also helps out at local churches, though she doesn’t belong to a parish.
Her other activities include hooking with yarn and a group of ladies dubbed “the hookers.” They meet monthly at the library and enjoy socialization as much as needlework.
In addition to her children, Gray’s cozy house has been home to a succession of cats and dogs over the years. Now, she’s raising two feral kittens.
Gray was politically active, too. She served as Democratic party chairman for many years and was elected to the Board of Health.
She was also a Girl Scout leader in town. She loved that and said she still keeps in touch with some of the girls who were in her troop.
Gray has eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Family and friends will celebrate her 80th birthday at a party on Saturday, Oct. 20. It will be held at the Phoenix Bar and Grill from 1 to 4 p.m., she said.
“I read that in the paper,” she said.
Eighty is just a number, she said, and she doesn’t feel old.
“I believe there’s a chronological age and an emotional age,” she said.
For her, the magic number has been 53 for some time, but now she’s decided to up the bar.
“I’m changing it to 54,” she said.