WINTER MEMORIES WITH AUNT SARAH AND MARY


I especially think of Aunt Sarah and Mary Reynolds in winter when it is storytelling time. Photo: Aunt Mary, Mother and Father, Aunt Sarah.

familyWinters were chilly in the old white, wooden, two-story home, at 69 Oak Street, in Saratoga Springs, New York. In the 1830’s, Irish immigrants lived on the west side of Saratoga Springs, NY, and called it Dublin. The Irish were stone cutters or masons, and bricklayers. According to Hoofing It, the style of the house bears a resemblance to those built in 1870. The home had a white picket fence and trimmed shrubs across the front, which privatized the property. Photo: My grandmother, Isabelle Reynolds-Ryall with her children on the front porch at 69 Oak Street.

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The kitchen was a favorite room in winter because it was warm. The windows steamed up when the old stove was on. Thin cotton curtains hung from the sunny windows. Yellow painted wooden chairs surrounded the table, and we  plopped ourselves in, around a rickety old table. Our aunts served us warm tea and Freihofer’s toast that scented the air with honey, melted butter, cinnamon, and homemade grape jelly. We always took evaporated milk and sugar in tea. Most of the cousins remember this fondly.

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Our aunts did not change with the seasons, nor did they participate in modern fashion. They were elder established seamstresses and proudly made their clothes. In their younger years, their careers consisted of working in the garment industry in New York City. In later life, Aunt Sarah had a seamstress office at the Grand Union Hotel. In later life, dresses they wore were always dark and long. Aunt Sarah snuffed the modern world. The aunts took pride in their unique culture. They wore heeled dress shoes. Aunt Mary’s hair was abundant, and I loved the look of her wavy, tousled, and bouncy grey hair. Aunt Sarah’s straight hair was the color of brown tea, and I suspected she colored it.

Photo: Aunt Sarah and Mary most likely outside of the textile company where they worked in New York City.

Aunt Sarah was formal and strict. I loved her, but she didn’t smile much outside of her dry humor. Aunt Mary was happy and childlike in her wonderment. She found joy in just about everything. Aunt Mary would exuberantly say when we sisters rang the front door, “Oh my, the girls are here!” I remember one night I was sleeping with Aunt Mary in a small bedroom on a single bed. She was making animal faces on the wall, and I became scared. Aunt Sarah cautioned her to stop teasing me. I was so frightened that I ran into Aunt Sarah’s front bedroom and hopped into her double bed and spent the night. The bed was placed in the middle of the room, which enabled her to make the bed.

Our aunts thought that young girls should sit quietly in a chair and learn to knit, crochet, and sew. My sister could sit contentedly for hours, with yarn or thread, working on a project. I was miserable and hated every moment of the torture. After a while, my aunts would give up, and set me free to wander into the back shed to explore the tools, hats, and garden baskets. After my fill, I went outside into the gardens. I just had to be outdoors; I was restless as a child.

I remember seeing broken egg shells in the vegetable garden and learned early on about composting and organic gardening. There was a lovely grape arbor in the backyard, near the clothesline. Our aunts were proud of the grapes they grew, and the grape jelly they made was the best I ever tasted.

Photo: My grandmother Isabelle Reynolds-Ryall in the garden at 69 Oak Street, Saratoga Springs, New York.

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One day, Aunt Sarah showed me a plant with heart-shaped pink flowers and a white tip, which held a bead of water. She asked, “Do you know the name of this flower?” I answered, “No.” As I recall, my aunt said, The plant is called Sweet William and named after your father, sweet William. I have always loved the tale.

Photo: Bleeding Heart.

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On rainy days, one of my aunts would hand me a missionary magazine, and I would go into the formal parlor and spread out on the floor to enjoy looking at the people from Africa and reading about them and the missionaries. I don’t think it odd that I chose to volunteer for a Catholic Mission in Latin America when I was young. I think the suggestion came long, long, ago.

A green bus went by the house and used to stop for my aunt Mary and I. We went shopping at the A & P because they had special offers. One time they were giving plate sets away if you bought evaporated milk. Aunt Mary would pick up a dish or table setting such as a creamer every week. Now I have the last of the set. A plate, bowl, and creamer are the last pieces. I remember the memories every time I pick one up and use it.

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Photo: Last of Aunt Sarah and Mary’s everyday plates.

One evening, the telephone rang at my family’s home, at 40 Madison Street. Aunt Sarah had suffered a stroke. It happened late in the evening, and Aunt Mary didn’t want to call anyone in the middle of the night. The didn’t have a telephone at the time. The next morning, Aunt Mary went next door to call a doctor. That evening, I learned about the stroke and slept with a photo of my Aunt Sarah under my pillow. I kissed the photograph and prayed that she would get better. In the meantime, I had a difficult time falling asleep. I was troubled by what happened to my Aunt Sarah and didn’t know what it meant, except something awful had happened, and life would never be the same again.

A few days went by before the next thing happened. I remember following my father and Aunt Mary down into the cellar at 69 Oak Street. It was surprising to find a Grotto to our Blessed Mother down in the basement. The cellar walls were stone like the Grotto. There was a root cellar stocked with colorful glass jars of canned vegetables, fruit, and jelly from the abundant gardens. A few days later, my dad and his brothers Owen and Ralph put in a gas stove in the back living room, near the dining room, kitchen, and bathroom. They were getting the house ready for Aunt Sarah to come home from the hospital.

Before the warmth of the gas stove in the middle room, I used to sleep on a horsehair couch in the formal front parlor in winter. Heavy drapes separated the hall and the formal front room. The furniture was firm and itchy. It was hard to settle down as a child with something irritating my skin. A framed print called The Whistling Boy hung from the wall. Rudolph Eickemeyer was the photographic artist. Campbell Art Company, Fifth Avenue, New York City sold the painting in 1901. A coated plate of saved stamps decorated a plate on the piano, odd that no-one played the piano? A colorful blooming red, waxy leaf, begonia cheered up the room. A small stand held a photo of a young man. Once I asked Aunt Sarah who he was? The best I can remember, she mentioned, he was my uncle and died long ago. Only recently, I learned from the family tombstone that our aunts had a brother, Owen Joseph Reynolds. He was born on January 19, 1881, and passed away on January 31, 1898. The place of death and attending doctor were not listed. I question, how did he die?

After Aunt Sarah came home from the hospital, I went to the house to visit. She was always busy now taking care of her sister in the back living room. I sat on the couch near Aunt Sarah’s bed. She didn’t speak now. She was pretty crippled up, and her hand was listless. She would pick up her hand, and kiss it. I know she was telling her body that she loved it even if her hand was purposeless now. After all, she was a seamstress and once depended on her hands. Little by little, I didn’t go over to the house as frequently. I tried, but it became sad for me. After Aunt Sarah died, on March 27, 1961, something changed in Aunt Mary. I still went over to stay with her because she was alone. Aunt Mary kept to herself now and would go up and down the stairs in search of something. As a child, I believed she went upstairs to visit Aunt Sarah. A child’s imagination can run wild.

In closing, I want to share one last tale about a 5-pound glass jar of honey. It was on sale one week at the A & P. Before Aunt Sarah became ill, Aunt Mary, and I lugged it home on the bus. Aunt Sarah said, “What are we going to do with 5 pounds of honey?” She always thought Aunt Mary was extravagant and teased her. In her gay manner, Aunt Mary said something like, “Oh it will be used up one way or another.” I loved Aunt Mary and her generous heart. She was a lot of fun. Mary Reynolds died May 17, 1969. I will always remember my aunts with love. They were the cornerstone of my childhood.

Source:  (Burke’s Funeral Notices: ID 1976 – James Owen Ryall, Jan 31, 1898, 17 years, 17 days old, page 239.)

Family tombstone was designed by Owen James Reynolds and his daughters Sarah and Mary.

copyright text and photographs Mary Ellen Ryall

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