July 17, 2017
News came this week that my great Aunt Eleanor died on Saturday evening. While she was a hundred and one years old, (yes, like the Dalmatian movie) the past few years were difficult. Those of you who have known me for a long time know that I spent most summers with she and my beloved grandmother, Ethel (Grans) in Ocean City, New Jersey. My parents would come for the month of August, but a good portion of our days were at her summer home on Bark Drive. It was a place of ritual and routine that impacted so much of my youth.
Neighborhood. 52nd Street was a lovely setup as the two sisters resided on Bark Drive and directly east on the next street over (Anchorage) were Ruth and Sam, their four kids, and for many summers one street west (Brigantine) was the house we rented for the month of August. It was a bit camp-like. Running from house to house to visit and gather, and always a collection of family on the beach through the summer playing horseshoes and paddleball and bodysurfing. I remember a great deal of talking and laughter.
Meals. These ladies ate like clockwork. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Orange juice and instant coffee. You ate at the tiny rectangular kitchen table. Placemats and folded napkins not optional. They loved fruit and corn. It is where I learned about savoring seasonal treats like blueberries, tomatoes, and peaches. Husking corn on the back porch. The proper way to set the table and also how to wash dishes as there was no dishwasher (or air conditioning, or electric dryer) for that matter. Coincidentally she would make a roast on one of the warmest days of the summer. They were night owls. Dessert came around the 10 pm hour just before the 11 o’clock news. Sometimes Aunt El would doze off in her respective chair, the one closest to the television, and Ethel would nudge her to bed, sometimes with her distinct schoolteacher voice, but always with love.
Current events. Speaking of watching the news, they avidly read their Philadelphia Inquirer and The Press (sometimes on the beach) and always the local Sentinel Ledger. We gathered for events like Wimbledon finals and the Royal Wedding and Fourth of July concerts from Washington to Boston. Aunt Eleanor was known for her correspondence and would often clip articles and put them in an envelope with a small note if she deemed it relevant to a common interest or something that reminded her of you. She did this well into her 90’s which amazed me as I was still losing track of my parking spot at the grocery store.
Dogs. They both had their own dogs and often volunteered to help with extended family dogs. Aunt El loved walking them and we always were slightly embarrassed by her report on their bathroom activity as she returned, declaring BM or not.
Volunteerism. She gave each Friday and often others to work at the hospital gift shop around the corner from her house. For many, many years. She helped purchase the greeting cards and we all received them like clockwork for our birthdays with a corresponding savings bond and sometimes some special coins taped inside that were prevalent to your years. She also dedicated time to the Red Cross taking phone calls at home on their behalf.
Faith. Church was a big part of both of their lives. I would join them on occasion at both the Episcopal church and sometimes the Tabernacle to hear a favorite visiting minister. The Book of Common Prayer reminds me of their consistent journey with God. Dressed up in their pretty church clothes and singing the hymns they loved. And if you didn’t go, you could depend on the fact that the sermon was coming to you later. On the beach or at the dinner table. Which at the time may not have been my first topic of choice, but I learned to respectfully listen. And later appreciate.
The art of cleaning. Hospital corners, hanging laundry, using Ajax in the tub when we had a rare shower or bath indoors. Remedies for ailments. Playing games like Yahtzee. Feeding the birds. I had no idea how much the sum of the parts kept me safe and secure and in my own little getawayland each summer. We ate Breyer’s Ice Cream (with pretzels) and Aunt Eleanor could have won the game on the Price is Right on the cost of each and every item. And always what was on sale.
There were definitely things she let me know she did not approve of. Driving barefoot was against the law as was eating leftovers cold. And yet so many acts of unconditional love. Many long distance calls to boyfriends at home and never a phone bill to pay. Open invitations for our friends to come visit in our later years of high school and college. Clean sheets and towels and meals for all.
Style. Pretty classic. She wore penny loafers and her ped stockings underneath, 60’s style pointed “Batman” sunglasses which have certainly cycled through the fashion magazines a few times through the decades. And there was always the late afternoon ocean swim when the three sisters, Eleanor, Ethel, and Ruth unapologetically put on their white bathing caps and walked out into the waves.
Brand loyalty. Aunt El drove Buicks. Always. Her favorite treat were Keebler Pecan Sandies carefully placed in the pantry cookie jar and used Colgate/Palmolive products in the kitchen and bathroom to honor the company her late husband worked for.
And aside from summer, there was Christmas. She consistently helped create and give us homemade ornaments from her church bazaar which were labelled with your initials and date. Many which still adorn my tree. (too many for the apartment tree.) Angels and little stuffed lambs and Mary Poppins characters. I have a full set of Christmas Spode that she gave me over the years. And for me, the crux of it all was Christmas Eve when the two sisters arrived together, trunk full of wrapped gifts. Plates of cookies. And the lovely ritual of our midnight service together. This is where I get a bit teary.
So here’s the thing. They both lost their husbands tragically. This fact always held some sadness and reverence for me as they persevered and lived with their heads held high. Stories of younger days flew in and out from time to time. They taught us about history. And progress as they moved into new decades and technology. Teaching us about their first televisions, streetcar rides, World War II, Betsy Ross, the signers of the Declaration of Independence. And all the words to God Bless America and Harrigan.
She playfully chose words for the summer when I was little. I only remember two, but they were good. Constitutional and cooperation. I was young and these five syllable words took some practice and rehearsal. She sent us to see Broadway shows with our parents. Annie and Peter Pan and Pirates of Penzance. It was the beginning of a love of show tunes and theater.
It’s hard to imagine the world without her. She was steadfast and although far away, close enough to know you’d be seeing her again. And we will.