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Elsie Mae Fortin, maternal grandmother of Madonna, has died aged 99. She was born in Standish, Michigan, on June 19, 1911, to French-Canadian, Catholic parents. Aged 11, Elsie went to live with the Cote family in Bay City, Michigan. She married a distant cousin, Willard Fortin, a railroad and lumber man who would later become a successful timber merchant, in 1929. They spent their honeymoon at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
The Fortins had eight children. Their daughter, Madonna Louise, married Sylvio ‘Tony’ Ciccone, a civil engineer, in 1955, and they settled in Pontiac, Michigan. Their eldest sons, Anthony and Martin, were born in the next two years. Madonna Louise Ciccone, named for her mother, was born on August 16, 1958, at Bay City Mercy Hospital: her mother had gone into labour while visiting Elsie.
Paula, Christopher and Melanie followed, but then tragedy struck. Madonna’s mother died of breast cancer on December 1st, 1963, aged just thirty. Tony Ciccone was remarried in 1966, to Joan Gustafson, mother of Jennifer and Mario.
In her 2003 song, ‘Mother and Father’, Madonna recalled her younger self as ‘a victim of a kind of rage’. Despite suffering the trauma of bereavement far too soon, Madonna and her siblings were raised within a loving, extended family.
Elsie Fortin had lost her husband in 1959, and would survive four of her children. The Ciccones would often visit her in Bay City, at the house where their own mother had grown up, at 1204 Smith St, in the Banks neighbourhood.
Martin Ciccone remembered those days in a 2008 interview with the Bay City Times:
“We would go to State Park Drive, go up to the park, go fishing and swimming,” he recalled.
“We would go to Tony’s Park and ride the carnival rides and play golf and all that,” he said, referring to the former amusement park off of Beaver Road. “We would go fishing in Quanicassee with my uncles, we used to go smelt dipping.”
On a hot summer day, he added, they’d get Coney dogs at the former Red Lion or grab malts at a shop owned by “the Beson boys.” And in the winter, they’d go skating on a makeshift ice rink near Anderson Pharmacy, 1108 Marquette St.
Martin Ciccone recalled that excited feeling of crossing the Zilwaukee Bridge on the way north. Once in town, the Ciccone children would play on the monkey bars at the park, jump off the bridge into the Kawkawlin River, and watch freighters unload piles of stone along the Saginaw River.
“We loved it partly because my mom was gone, so my grandma was kind of like the mom,” he said.
Martin Ciccone said Bay City is referenced in many of Madonna’s songs that reminisce about childhood and losing their mother, including ‘This Used To Be My Playground’, and ‘Oh Father’. Martin Ciccone said parts of the video for ‘Oh Father,’ circa 1989, actually were filmed in Calvary Cemetery, 2977 Old Kawkawlin Road, where their mother is buried.
In his 2009 book, Life With My Sister Madonna, Christopher Ciccone described ‘Grandma Elsie’, affectionately named ‘Nanoo’, as ‘a second mother to all of us. She was widowed a year before my birth, has soft, curled brown hair, arranged in the style of the fifties, kind brown eyes, generally wears pastel-colored dresses…and always smells of L’Air du Temps, her favorite perfume.’
Of Elsie’s home, Christopher wrote: ‘Pink is Nanoo’s favorite color, so one birthday he gave her an all-pink kitchen: a pink stove, pink refrigerator, pink dishwasher. Nanoo’s home is elegant, just like Nanoo herself, and is furnished with all things comfortable—such as the burnished yellow leather davenport on which I always love playing. In her basement, there is a wood-paneled barroom, shuffleboard, and an incinerator—which fascinates me.’
Tony Ciccone was a kind, but firm father who expected his children to be high achievers. By contrast, Elsie indulged them. ‘Nanoo is quite liberal,’ Christopher recalled. ‘Her sons smoke pot in the basement…She lets us eat as many desserts as we want and cooks us our favorite foods: savory meat pie and chicken soup with thick noodles, a special recipe from northern France.’
In 2008, Christopher noted that his grandmother’s life cannot have been easy. ‘She also had to stand by and watch as many of her remaining children struggled with alcoholism—an ongoing problem with many of my aunts and uncles, one that continues to haunt our family—but she has always been incredibly stoic,’ he remarked. ‘A few years ago, she was hit by a car and needed two knee replacements. Now she is almost blind and living in reduced circumstances, and fifteen years ago she was forced to move into a smaller house.’
Like the rest of the family, Elsie would have to adjust to her grand-daughter Madonna’s rise to fame, which began with her first, self-titled album in 1983. While watching his sister perform ‘Like a Virgin’ at the MTV Awards a year later, Christopher reflected: ‘The audience may be enthralled by Madonna, but I watch the greenroom TV, see her pop out of a wedding cake, and squirm. As she rolls around the stage, the thought flashes across my mind as to what our father and Grandma Elsie must both be thinking as they see her act on TV. I wonder if my sister is at all troubled at the possibility of shocking or hurting them…I doubt it. And nor will I ask her.’
Elsie, and many other relatives, attended Madonna’s 1985 concert in Detroit, Michigan, when Madonna told the audience: ‘I never was elected Homecoming Queen. But I sure feel like one now.’ Elsie was also present at Madonna’s wedding to Sean Penn, on her 27th birthday, in August 1985. Unfortunately, the Malibu hilltop ceremony soon descended into a ‘circus.’
A tribute published at ObitMichigan.com by Gephart Funeral Home, evokes Elsie Fortin in later life: ‘She remained devoted to her faith, demonstrating a strength and depth of character that belied the seeming innocence of her own nature. Despite it all she never lost her ability to love, enjoy a laugh, worry about what was in the fridge, and offer compassion to someone in need.’ She volunteered for many years as a driver to the Sisters of Mercy, and donated regularly to the Capuchin Franciscan Friars. She was a parishioner at Visitation Catholic Church for almost half a century.
‘Anyone who knows Elsie Fortin knows that her door was always open! She was a touchstone in the lives of so very many. She was a gentle soul who listened without judgment and offered comfort, care, and always a home-cooked meal– there were no strangers to her. Elsie’s kitchen table was a safe-haven and gathering hub for her children, their friends and families; to countless visiting grandchildren, cousins, spouses, longtime neighbors, and family friends. There was bacon, something sweet, and always more coffee at the ready; during the holidays there was meat pie, and occasionally the olive martini. She was regarded as second mother to many regardless of relation. Right to the end, she kept in touch with the concerns and details of her 97 descendants and their ever-changing lives. Up until Sunday of this week she was taking visitors, listening to Glenn Miller, and Skyping with distant family.
Though she lived her entire life within 40 miles of her birthplace and seldom traveled outside of Michigan, Elsie Fortin remained for decades the beloved matriarch of an extended family that has collectively encircled the globe. As such, her quiet, yet tenacious and childlike spirit has seen more of the world through them than she could have ever imagined. The plaque that hangs on her kitchen wall says it all: “God is Love, and he who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him.”’
Elsie Fortin spoke warmly of Madonna to the Bay City Times in 2008. ‘She’s done things that I didn’t approve of, but at the same time she’s my granddaughter and I still love her and I’m proud of her hard work. She’s been good to me…I’m glad she made good in the world, but that wouldn’t cause me to live any differently than I do in this funny little house.’
Elsie Mae Fortin is survived by 4 children, 36 grandchildren, 47 great-grandchildren, as well as in-laws, family spouses and friends. Her funeral will be held on March 12 at St Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church, Bay City, Michigan.