Joseph Lema Jr. (1910-2004) knew that his bride’s heart was set on this sweet little house near St. Peter’s Church. Now, 1939 was scarcely a year for extravagant financial gestures, but Joe so loved his new wife, Jessica (Grace) Lema (1911-2012); so loved her that he sacrificed his black roadster with orange wire wheels to finance the purchase. And one day, he came home to their apartment “downtown,” at 394 Commercial Street, showed her the keys he had in his hand and said, “Let’s take a look at our house.” That lovely romantic gesture has been amply repaid. Mrs. Lema was still living at 10 Cudworth Street 72 years later when I had the privilege of meeting her — one of Provincetown’s oldest citizens in one of its oldest houses. That’s just how it should be.
The house is astonishingly intact, from its birthing room to its plank doors with gravity latches. And, in a conversation arranged by Susan Leonard in April 2011, Mrs. Lema explained that she and her husband liked it that way. The house serviceably allowed them to raise a family of three children, and the Lemas never saw much of a need to alter it. Can you imagine? Talk about sustainable architecture! The vertiginously steep staircase sent shivers through me. “Surely you don’t use that,” I said. “Oh, no,” Mrs. Lema assured me, at the age of 99. “I haven’t been on those stairs in six months.”
Mrs. Lema was born in Cambridge on 10 October 1911. (“10/10/11,” she pointed out, is very easy to remember.) Her father, Capt. Manuel Joseph Grace, had come from Pico in the Azores, where the family name was Gracia. He skippered a fishing schooner. Her mother was Rose Elizabeth (Costa) Grace, a bookkeeper who lived in Provincetown and East Boston. The family moved to the Cape end when Mrs. Lema was a baby and lived at 158 Commercial Street, next to the landmark Grozier House. Her mother made braided rugs, and Alice Grozier was a steady customer. Mrs. Grace would also take her rugs and quilts over to Boston, to show them at Jordan Marsh, and always returned with a ribbon for excellence, Mrs. Lema said. At the time, long before the Boatslip was constructed, the bay side of Commercial Street was a large expanse of open land and beach known as Grozier Park. Young Jessica Grace could play at the beach while her father — sidelined from the fishery by kidney disease — watched from the house. “He could sit at the window and tell you what the weather would be,” Mrs. Lema recalled.
Mrs. Lema picked up her mother’s craft, but not nearly as enthusiastically. Regarding the handsome braided rug in the living room as we talked, she said frankly, “It took me 25 years to make, because I’d get sick of it and put it away for a while.” What she did excel in — and enjoy — was making prints, tinting lithographs and cutting mattes. She attended the Massachusetts College of Art and worked as a nanny for Tod Lindenmuth’s wife, Elizabeth Boardman Warren, after graduation. “She taught me to print,” Mrs. Lema said. “From then on, I did all her printing, all her mattes.” She also tinted lithographs for Dorothy Lake Gregory.
In the 1930s, young Joe Lema was working at Nelson’s Market (now Far Land), 150 Bradford Street, and paying a great deal of attention to a girl who happened to be a friend of Jessica’s. “My friend and I were going out to the beach and he came along in the roadster,” Mrs. Lema recalled. “We climbed into the rumble seat. She turned to me and said, ‘Joe’s teaching me to drive.’ I was a bit shy but I said to him, ‘I’d love to learn how to drive.’ He said, ‘I’ll be by at 8 o’clock tomorrow.'” The driving lessons ended. And when the roadster was sold to help finance the house purchase, the Lemas took to using Clarence Nelson’s yellow pick-up truck to get around town. “For six months,” Mrs. Lema said, “we didn’t go the movies or buy any clothes.”
When she was pregnant with Jessica (b 1940), Mrs. Lema was told by her doctor to give up her strenuous work on the printing press. Two other children followed: Joseph in 1942 (“Joseph Anthony, not Junior”) and Elizabeth in 1943. Henry Hensche drew a lovely portrait of young Elizabeth that was still hanging in Mrs. Lema’s living room when I visited.
Joe Lema’s career at Nelson’s was interrupted by a stint in the Army toward the end of World War II, but though his travels took him far from the Cape (Alaska), he did not venture far from his trade (meat inspector for troop provisions). He served as a meat inspector for troops stationed in Alaska. He was swept into office as a Selectman in 1957, during the election that upheld the newly instituted Selectmen-Town Manager form of government. At the age of 60, when retirement thoughts are beginning to form in some people’s minds, Lema opened the Joe Lema & Sons [?] Market on Main Street in Wellfleet, where he worked for the next 34 years, until selling the business to Marshall Smith, who now maintains it as the Wellfleet Marketplace. Lema died not long thereafter. (“Joseph Lema Jr., 93,” The Banner, 4 March 2004.)
Mrs. Lema lived to see her 100th birthday, but no more. She died 4 May 2012 in an assisted-living facility not far from Jessica’s home in Delaware, leaving not only three children, seven grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, a step-great-grandchild and one great-great-grandchild, but a house that spoke eloquently of family. Almost 30 years earlier, Jessica had described the feeling that washed over her whenever she returned to 10 Cudworth Street. She said it was a
“feeling that can only be experienced by someone raised by quiet, kind, unassuming parents who provided a stable life before my journey into the world. It is the feeling that no matter what adventure I choose in whatever part of the world; what disappointment or pain I suffer; whatever failure may occur; I will always be important, loved, worried about and, most of all, cherished. I play no businesswoman roles here. A little girl emerges before she must return to the ‘real world.'”