My aunts and uncles and grandparents seemed ageless. I never thought of them as “old,” or as “getting old.” When my cousin Margy Norton sent me a photo of her grandmother – my Aunt Ellen – she said, “Gramie Norton looked like this for as long as I knew her.”
Ellen and her younger brother, my grandfather Ellsworth Hall, shared a sense of humor – Ellsworth’s quiet and twinkly, Ellen’s brash and lively – that must have made life on the farm entertaining.
In the black and white photo Margy sent, Aunt Ellen stands in front of her cottage on Long Island Sound wearing what look like clown shoes. The Hall women were tormented by bunions and corns and coped with them in practical ways. Ellen wore her special slippers. My mother’s cousins Melissa and Gertrude cut holes in their white Keds to accommodate sore feet. They laughed about their creative footwear.
Ellen dressed without vanity, wearing comfortable cotton dresses all summer. In an iconic photo, she sits on the lawn in front of the cottage with her favorite dog Count. This is how I always think of her – surrounded by blue and white and smiling an impish smile.
Despite her life’s tragedies – her only daughter Jane died at fourteen, her husband Henry in 1938 leaving her a widow for twenty-six years – she held onto a teasing and fun-loving disposition. Her two sons John and Austin provided her with spirited daughters-in-law and loving grandchildren. At her cottage and in her little house in Wallingford she cooked on coal-burning stoves. Summer life at the cottage was simple, but surprisingly elegant.
She made her famous ginger cookies in the ovens of the massive old stoves and stored them in the same black tin my cousins still use. She greeted me in the kitchen by sticking out her false teeth and asking if I wanted some sour doughnuts. She chided me when I wore lipstick, but I could coax her into playing endless games of Parcheesi and checkers.
Even when I was young and sitting in the living room on the farm listening to the older women talk about their lives, I was learning something from them. Their lessons have become more relevant to me as I grow older. They embodied the adage, “Pain is inevitable – suffering is optional.” The women who paved my way certainly had their share of pain. But they cut holes in their shoes, they played Parcheesi, they gathered in a room together on a Sunday afternoon, they sat on the sea wall in front of a summer cottage, and they made ginger cookies to please the next generation. To all of us they bequeathed their love of family and their enduring sense of place.
On Friday: Outbuildings #3 – The Turkey Pen