Sadly, our vacation was at an end. My grandmother remained inNew Yorkwith her sons for six months while the four of us drove back toCalifornia, and as traditionally planned, she returned to stay with us for the remaining six months of the year. Living together as somewhat of an extended family had many advantages, one of them being the passing down memories of family history from generation to generation through storytelling.
Often, on a Saturday morning, my brother and I would jump into my grandmother’s single bed with her, to listen to stories about their large family and about our mother. We learned some things about my grandmother’s childhood inSicily, but mostly, we were interested in their family life onShelterIslandin the early 1900s. How my grandparents and so many members of their family ended up owning land, houses and businesses there is not know, only that they first had spent many years in Brooklyn when they emigrated from Sicily. My grandmother gave birth, in various homes, to nine children, my mother being the seventh or eighth child. She and my aunt were the only two of their children born onShelterIsland. They lived in a large colonial house, which is still standing on Route 114. They had fair size piece of land on which my grandfather grew fruit and vegetables, raised chickens, a horse, and a cow for milk. The fruit and vegetables they canned were enough to get them through the harsh winters. My grandfather was a barber with his shop, which doubled as a candy store, attached to their home. He also had a shop on the ground level of the Chequit Inn and also went to individual homes to cut hair.
My grandmother told us of the huge family gatherings and summer weekend when all of the “off island” cousins would come. The little girl cousins would pile into one bed together, laughing and teasing until they could no longer keep their eyes open. The boys slept in beds or on outdoor hammocks strung across the front porch. A tire attached to a tree by a long rope provided hours of entertainment. Typical of that time, the women and the girls did all of the dinner preparation and the cleanup afterwards. Everyone ate together, no matter what age the adults or children. My grandfather and his brothers would play cards until the wee hours while smoking “cheroots”. Of course, everyone went to the beaches. Women of my grandmother’s generation wore a full costume into the water. It consisted of stockings and what looked like a full-length dress. My grandfather’s suit looked very similar to the wrestling uniforms of today.
Children and adults had bicycles to get around the island as well as horses and wagons, and the occasional automobile. The island had only an elementary school so my uncles had to get the north ferry to Greenport, which was their designated high school. When the weather permitted, they would ride their bicycles, as there were no school buses. The winter sounded much colder and snowier back then, but my uncles never missed school. Even on those occasions when the bay was frozen over and the ferries couldn’t run, my grandfather would take the boys by horse and sled all the way across the ice to school.
I am in awe of the undying determination of my grandparents, and how much they did with so little, under such isolated and difficult conditions. After all, there were no washers or dryers, no dishwasher, refrigerators, freezers, indoor toilets, paper towels, plastic wraps, instant meals, super markets, or fast foods. They worked until they were weary, with little time for worry…and they had their close-knit family for support, and everybody slept through the night without meds. No one had time to be bored. They didn’t have everything, but it seems that they had all that they needed.
The culture of family history through storytelling from generation to generation is sadly being lost. There is less time, interest or immersion within families. The richness of getting to know my heritage in this way was a wonderful bonding experience, and has left me with some of the most wonderful memories. I now live on the north fork and still visit Shelter Island, often stopping at my grandparents’ house and think about how much more I would like to know.
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