Aunt Mary and Betty White

My Great Aunt Mary recently passed away at 90 years old. She was the oldest person in our family and the oldest person I knew, but that’s just because Betty White won’t return my calls. I used to call Aunt Mary when she lived in Connecticut and we’d talk for an hour or so. She would talk about what it was like growing up on the farm in New York during the 1920’s. It was very different than my youth, spent in the New Jersey suburbs in the 70’s.

Aunt Mary talked about early Americana, about life after The Great War and about my great grandparents. Then we discussed their first automobile, how they milked cows and how they used their icehouse. (A quick Google of “icehouse” returns a band, a comedy club and a large ice rink in Hackensack. None of these proved to be the icehouse she was referring to.)

Their icehouse on the farm was simply that – a small structure full of ice. Aunt Mary, Grandma  and their parents would stock the icehouse themselves with ice from the lake. During the Upstate New York winter months (September 1st through Fourth of July), they would take the horse-drawn sled down to the lake and cut out suitcase-sized blocks of ice. Then, using a block and tackle device, they would hoist the blocks out of the sled and lower them into the icehouse. My great grandfather would pack the icehouse to the rim, separating the blocks with layers of sawdust so the frozen cubes wouldn’t stick together. He was a genius.

Today, the only “block and tackle” I’m familiar with is on my son’s Madden NFL for the Xbox One. And honestly, the last time I touched sawdust was during a failed attempt at a bird house (currently being enjoyed by squirrels).

I also buy ice for $2.00 a bag. …don’t tell my dad.

Obviously, things are different now.

I think we are in danger of losing touch with the Americana my aunt speaks of so fondly.  Every family has their own history. It is up to us to learn it, keep it and pass it on to our children.  So, I encourage you to call your “Aunt Mary” and share a cup of coffee over the phone. Ask them about their first car. What was the first movie they saw? Do you know their love story? Preserve a little piece of your own family history.

And if any of you speak with Betty White, give her my best.


7 replies
  1. Mike Chiafulio
    Mike Chiafulio says:

    So interesting. Just this past Saturday I dropped Miles off at soccer practice in Tarrytown and walked down to the Hudson River to check on the progress of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. Its almost done, and it’s pretty cool. Anyway, as I stood there on the pedestrian path I thought about how the river hasn’t really frozen on the edges the last two years as it has in the past. Back in the day it froze quite a bit and folks used to do just as your Aunt Mary’s family did. They’d take the ice right out of the river and store it with sawdust same as your great uncle.About 4 years ago we went to the old Washington Irving house on the Hudson and they had a whole write up on that process. I would have preferred a first hand account. Cheers, cuz!

  2. Ivette Gibbe-Fields
    Ivette Gibbe-Fields says:

    Cool beans!!! Love the stories.. I have a great aunt that lives in Anchorage, Alaska, her stories and those of her mom my great grandma were always so cool! You are right! Its important to know about our family history.. I love to hear the stories and all they did.. Hugs!

  3. Josie Stevenson
    Josie Stevenson says:

    That’s a great story Curtis. I think it’s nearly 20yrs ago that your Great Aunts were over in the U.K. staying at the Russell Street Hotel not far from Euston Station. Pat and I went to meet them and spent a wonderful day together with them in London. Beautiful ladies we do enjoyed their company. Fond memory!


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