Margaret Relles, a former teacher who raised five children with a florist and helped start one of Sacramento’s most prominent family-owned businesses, died Aug. 23 at 97.
Mrs. Relles, who was 2 when her mother died, devoted her life to five generations of family. She gave up teaching to move with her husband, Ross, to Sacramento before World War II. They opened Relles Florist in 1946. A Midwestern native, she won over his close-knit, Italian American family and learned her mother-in-law’s recipe for spaghetti and meatballs.
When her husband died in 1972, she joined her sons and daughter in running the florist shop in midtown while cooking and hosting Sunday dinners for family and friends. She belonged to community groups, supported her children’s business and political ventures, and cheered at countless youth sports events, school performances and graduations.
“She was a strong-willed woman,” her son Jim said. “Throughout her whole life, she was someone who just moved forward.”
Born in 1917 in New Castle, Ind., Margaret Helen Smith and her 11-month-old brother, Robert, were sent to live with different relatives after their mother died. Mrs. Relles aspired to be a teacher growing up playing the piano and giving lessons in Syracuse, Ind.
She enrolled at Arizona State Teachers College and met Ross Relles, who grew up working in Sacramento florist shops. They eloped in 1938, because female teachers were not allowed to be married in Arizona at that time, her son said.
“They snuck out of town and got married in Globe and had two people as witnesses, and that’s all,” he said.
“I don’t think even my Italian grandmother knew, and she didn’t meet her until after they were married. When she first saw my mother, she said to the family, ‘How can he be married to this thin, fragile woman? She won’t live long enough to have a family.’ And then my mother went on to outlive everybody.”
Mrs. Relles was active in many community groups, including the American Association of University Women, Italian Cultural Society, Romulus Club, Soroptimist International and Tuesday Club. She served on committees as a longtime member of Parkside Community Church in Sacramento.
She raised four sons and a daughter in East Sacramento and later in South Land Park. As the matriarch of a large extended family, she opened her home for Sunday spaghetti dinners, birthdays, weddings and holidays to as many as 100 guests, including in-laws, cousins and friends. She played the piano and led family sing-alongs on Christmas Eve.
“Losing her mother so young gave her determination,” her son said. “She taught us to work hard, do your best and give back to the community. She really loved her family.”
In addition to her son Jim, Mrs. Relles is survived by three sons, Ross, Tom and Ron; a daughter, JoAnn Bradley; 12 grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; and three great-great-grandchildren.
A celebration of her life is set for 11 a.m. Saturday at Parkside Community Church, 5700 S. Land Park Drive, Sacramento.