A Note to My Readers: I write for my fellow researchers because they should revel in their family history…the process and the discovery and to remember to celebrate their own successes and to forgive their own blunders. I write for my family because the stories of our family are all at once so inspiring, embarrassing, noble and undignified and so darn human. Somewhere in my “Purdyness” I find the humor in the most impossible and difficult of moments and storytelling is a dominant gene that blesses and plagues me. There is no rehab for that addiction and I am glad.
Seeking inspiration for a new post for my blog, I opened up a storage box full of black and white snapshots of my family from the 1950’s. What I thought would take a half an hour of sorting for a quick nudge of inspiration turned into three hours of peering through the gray tones and enjoying the flashbacks of a voice, a gesture, a scent of perfume or the rustle of lovely fabric. Scores of images and memories later, one photo rested on my lap as I was unwilling to put it back with the others.
One of my favorite photographs of my mother’s family was taken in the summer of 1956. The Purdy siblings…surviving sisters Elizabeth, Mary, Deborah and Esther and their brother, Bill…. gathered with their families in the Buffalo, New York home of Mary Samantha Purdy Kroll and her husband, Harry. It was the first time the Purdy children had been together under one roof since their Ithaca childhood in the 1920’s.
I was eight years old and in the midst of the mélange of Purdy personalities, memories and the occasional serenade…all accompanied by spontaneous kisses and hugs…a cheek pinch from my Uncle Bill, cocktails, cigarettes and cigars and ridiculous amounts of food. Fifty three years later I would gather in Ithaca with my cousins, brothers and my daughters with a deeper knowledge of our Purdy ancestors and a more profound love and appreciation for our parents and a wistful thought to 1956 and to the Ithaca history that is so much a part of who they were. And who we are.
Sisters, Silks and Conspiracy
Almost from her birth in 1900 eldest child Elizabeth had been raised in the home of her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy Smith, the matriarch that even her great grandchildren who never knew her still deferentially call Grandma Smith. Betty was doted upon by her grandmother while her sisters lived in the nearby, but more modest household of their parents. Although she was pretentiously called “Elizabawth” by Grandma Smith and physically separated from her siblings and parents, she was their “Betty” and the sibling bond remained strong and loyal.
The lovely dresses that hung in Betty’s wardrobe were beyond the means of parents Burt and Florence Purdy, but the mere distance of a block or two was no match for the devotion of Purdy sisterhood. Betty’s younger sisters, Kathryn, Mary and Deborah were lively and vivacious and living in the midst of the dynamic “Roaring Twenties” period of Cornell campus life and there were fraternity parties to attend and eligible young men to dance with. In a female conspiracy against a disapproving Grandma Smith and their unassuming parents, Betty’s party dresses were lowered from her second story bedroom to her giggling sisters waiting below.
Vibrant assortments of silks and chiffons were secreted behind the drapes of the girls’ shared bedroom until the sisters, freshly scented and hair bobbed and marseilled in the fashion of the day, were ready to greet their young beaus at the door. With a quick kiss for Mama and Papa and their younger sisters, Esther and Ruth and and an adoring cuddle for infant brother, Bill, the sisters Kathryn, Mary and Deborah and their dates swept out of the house in a waft of perfume and absconded finery.
Elizabeth “Betty” Curtis Purdy Crane
On June 23, 1900 Elizabeth Curtis Purdy was born to twenty-five year old haberdasher, Burt Samuel Purdy and his eighteen year old bride, Florence Curtis Purdy in Ithaca, New York. She was named after Burt’s mother and with a nod to her teenage mother’s maiden name was given the middle name of Curtis. Burt and Florence were still newlyweds and living at 205 Prospect Street with Florence’s parents when their daughter, Elizabeth was born.
According to my mother, Grandma Smith took physical…not legal…custody of Elizabeth when she was just an infant and despite her mother’s sobbing and pleadings, Aunt Betty would not ever be returned to the Purdy household. Thus Betty was raised on 322 Pleasant Street with her grandmother, her step grandfather, Charles Smith and his daughter, Vera. After Charles died, Elizabeth purchased a home at 409 South Aurora Street. Betty continued to live with her grandmother even past her marriage on February 7, 1928 to Robert Lupton Crane. Their early married years were spent with Grandma Smith living with her in her home on 307 Eddy Street. In the 1930 census 30 year old Betty is listed as 25 years old; Robert is correctly listed as 23 years old and Grandma Smith, like her granddaughter, has reported her age as five years younger than her correct age of eighty-two years old.
Eventually Bob and Betty Crane left Ithaca for his hometown of Buffalo, New York. In the autumn of 1940, just months after the death of Grandma Smith, Betty and Bob adopted their newborn son and gave him the name Peter Van Dorn Crane. Though Peter was named after our ancestral grandfather, Betty was fond of telling him that it was the name of her pet rooster…much to her amusement and much to Peter’s total confusion…a tale Peter and I had a grand chuckle over at our Purdy Gathering in Ithaca in the summer of 2009.
Silk Bosoms, Reno and Crimson Busses
My earliest memory of Bob and Betty Crane was an infantile one to best describe it. I was starting to talk…and I haven’t stopped yet. My parents had driven from Ithaca to Buffalo to visit my mother’s sisters. While the adults visited, I was put down for a toddler’s much needed nap on my aunt and uncle’s bed in their elegantly decorated master bedroom. Peeking in on me, my mother and Aunt Betty noticed me rousing and came in to retrieve me. “What beautiful skirtans!” I exclaimed to my mother and aunt which put them into fits of laughter. Both women liked to tell that story to me all during my childhood and even as a young bride on my wedding day, I heard the story again and again from the two sisters as they fondly reminisced about the little blonde toddler who admired her aunt’s choice in draperies.
I remember Aunt Betty best in her Darlington apartment. She was divorced and the only sister that drove a car. And she had a “boyfriend”. That made my aunt a woman of intrigue to me. When we visited her, my sleeping arrangement was on her bedroom chaise lounge that had a direct view of her vanity table. The table featured an attached round mirror which reflected a riot of nail polish, perfume bottles, a silver framed photo of my cousin, Peter and an impossibly large crystal ashtray crowded with the lipstick stained remnants of her chain smoking habit. A pull of the vanity table’s crystal knob revealed my aunt’s other treasures…usually a clot of loose diamonds rattling among out-of-favor lipsticks and a collection of match boxes from Reno. I suspect the Reno match boxes were wistful souvenirs of her divorce from Bob.
Peter was as elegant to me as my aunt’s home. The slightest hint of a bemused smile played about his serious young man’s face and lit up his eyes. It was when he spoke with a clever and wry wit in his rich and rare baritone that Peter’s charm and warmth etched himself into my heart. Fifty years later at our 2009 Purdy Gathering in Ithaca, I could have closed my eyes and picked his voice out of the hotel lobby full of gabbling people.
Aunt Betty’s living room was chic. Silk banquette style couches surrounded a large round mirrored coffee table. Dominating the coffee table was the obligatory oversized ashtray- the matching twin of the one that sat on her vanity- with its ever present Tarleton cigarettes. The pristine white cylinders were neatly arranged in a monogrammed silver box while a host of their sullied brethren lay burnt and ringed with red in the deep recesses of the lovely ashtray. Corals and turquoise tones accented with brilliant touches of faceted crystal pieces graced the small sitting room. A vestige of Grandma Smith…a petite, carved rosewood chair with a white silk seat anchored one wall while against another wall a Philco AM/FM radio and 78 rpm record player highboy gave Betty the panache of a modern woman.
Among the iconic recollections of chic and cigarettes resides the equally important imagery of bosoms and blossoms…silk to be exact. Betty had been the only sister to be graced with an ample bosom…a physical trait that even in her dotage, she proudly flaunted and invariably anchored with a delicate, but large silk bloom. Her dramatic embraces usually entailed a bit of perfumed smothering accompanied by a solid buss upon a cheek that required one to take an oxygenating breath and make a subtle swipe to remove the tell tale crimson lip print.
I must confess that I have a tendency toward serious hugging and leaving behind a trace of my own shade of lipstick. I just pretend I don’t see anyone swiping the affectionate method of Purdy branding from their cheek.
Kathryn Louise Purdy
Born three years after Elizabeth, Kathryn Louise Purdy was christened Kathryn after her maternal grandmother, Kate D. Curtis and her grandmother’s sister, Jennie Louise. Like her sister Betty, she was a lovely brunette but with sable brown eyes. My mother only spoke of Kathryn on occasion. Kathryn and my mother shared a bed in their second story bedroom on Tompkins Street and my mother said she was Kate’s shadow. Though still tinged with the never forgotten grief of her loss, the picture my mother painted of Kathryn was of a vivacious young woman, full of life and fun. The leader of the Purdy girls at home, she was the instigator in the “party frock conspiracy”. Though she was courted by many Cornell “swells” who would drive up to their home in a Stutz Bearcat and sporting a raccoon coat, she had one steady beau that held her heart. Sometime in her twentieth year, she became mysteriously ill and her desperate family and baffled physicians sent her to Florida in hopes for a “cure”. Within a few weeks, mortally ill Kathryn…Kate like her grandmother…returned on a train to die at home on April 24th 1924 surrounded by her family and grieving beau.
Mary Samantha Purdy Kroll
Mary Samantha Purdy was named after her two paternal great grandmothers, Mary Van Dorn Williams and Semantha Ingersoll Purdy though my Aunt Mary always told everyone her name was Mary Ann. She was the first to marry. In 1923 eighteen year old Mary Purdy eloped with furrier Harry Aaron Kroll and left her Ithaca family to create her own family in Buffalo, New York. Sons Harrison (Hak) and Robert (Bobby) were born and raised in Buffalo, New York.
Aunt Mary was the Buffalo “hostess with the mostess” and affectionately called her loved ones “Tweetsdie-Dins”. Her 419 Voorhees Avenue Tudor bungalow was always open to friends and family. Mary’s fashionable plum and ice blue kitchen was the heart of the home for her and cooking was definitely her joy and long suit. In the spring of 1952 I spent a period of time with my Aunt Mary. I was four years old and ate my first waffle with strawberries and whipped cream which was prepared by her German maid and served at the breakfast bar.
Aunt Mary’s vanity table was a concoction of powders, perfumes and brushes and mirrors that eerily resembled that of my mother’s and my Aunt Betty’s. A dainty perch for its mistress completed the feminine tableau where with a pat of her hand, Aunt Mary would summon me to sit beside her and observe her beauty ritual. A lesson in choosing the right lipstick and matching nail polish to complement one’s apparel along with a quick dash to her walk in closet to peer among the furs and lovely dresses became our morning ritual.
Tallulah Bankhead, Snickers and Flash Gordon
Aunt Mary kept her cigarette holder on the telephone stand that sat at the base of the banister and was a ready prop for a kid that had a bent for entertainment. To the amusement of my aunt and uncle, I mimicked actress Tallulah Bankhead with my aunt’s cigarette holder casually perched in my upturned hand, tossing my head and drawling “Dahling” as I sashayed down their long staircase.
I was not the sole entertainer in the household. In fact, my Uncle Harry, a rakish ukulele performer and lively vocalist often gathered with Hak at the piano and Bob on guitar to favor us with a bit of pre dinner revelry. Bob was cousin crush material. He was older and wore his clothes like James Dean. I was homesick for my big brothers and Bobby made me his little sister that spring, lifting me to his shoulders and dashing through the house with me with his whoops and my giggles filling the air. Harry with his neatly trimmed moustache and silk smoking jacket and Mary’s girlish and twinkling eyes, delicately perfumed wrists and her crisp organdy cocktail apron tied at a trim little waist are an enduring and endearing image in my memory.
I ate Chinese food when I didn’t know what or where China was. I watched “Flash Gordon” on the Krolls stylish, modern RCA television with my cousin, Bob and learned to love Snickers lovingly dispensed from my Aunt Mary’s “candy drawer” at the right side of her sink. I rode the escalator at Hengerer’s, Buffalo’s leading retail store where my uncle Harry was a furrier. I banged tunelessly on the piano in imitation of my cousin, HAK. I sat silently in the breakfast nook…a difficult task for the chatterbox that I was…am…while my Uncle Harry ate his soft boiled egg and toast over the Buffalo News. I was tenderly loved by the Krolls that spring and I will never forget it.
I am 63 years old and fantasize about knocking on the door of 419 Voorhees Avenue to peek inside at the stairway where I flounced and into the living room where male voices blended in song and to test the air for the faint suggestion of waffles and strawberries emanating from my aunt’s kitchen.
Deborah Jane Purdy Martin
Another girl. By now the Purdy household was a bastion of females and it seems it was preordained for Burt to be surrounded by females…his mother, his Aunt Mary Purdy Russell, his grandmother, Mary Van Dorn Williams and now his wife and daughters. But this daughter was blonde with hazel eyes…more like him physically than his other daughters who favored the Curtis family.
My mother’s recollections of Papa and Mama were not so much of a husband and wife, but more of a series of vignettes of them as individuals. There was Papa making popcorn for the children and encouraging them to do their homework. Mama was so beautiful that men would often gawk at her even when she carried her children. Papa was a “tailor’s dummy” and always dressed nattily and sporting a bowler hat. Mama was meek and kind and never raised her voice. And there were the fires.
In the early 1900’s the steep hills atop which Ithaca is perched and the large wood frame houses that were and still are the composition of dwellings along with the method of gas and wood fires for heating and light created a frightful combination that often resulted in disastrous fires. Grandma Smith was burned out of one home and the Purdys were burned out of two. Thankfully no lives were lost, but family treasures were victims of the flames. Oliver S. Williams’ letters written in the mid 1800’s from California to his wife, Mary Van Dorn Williams…keepsakes that Mary kept bundled in a satin blue ribbon were claimed by fire and my mother spoke often of Grandma Smith’s melancholic and continuing distress over the demise of her father’s love letters to her mother. Only Ruth had a dangerous brush with fire. After wandering too close to the wood stove in the kitchen, her frock caught fire and my grandmother had to chase her as she ran screaming and bring her down to the ground while beating back the flames with her bare hands.
There never seemed to be much money in the Purdy household and yet the girls made their own entertainment. The front sidewalk at the base of the large steps to the house was the site of girlish games of hopscotch and jacks and dolls. My mother taught me to make my own paper dolls…something she had mastered when she and her sisters were young. Summer meant the weekly appearance of the ice wagon pulled by a dappled gray horse. While the obedient creature stood at the side of the street, the ice man grappled with large chunks of ice harvested that winter from Cayuga Lake. As he headed up the steep front stairs with the large block upon his shoulder, the girls would approach the gray beast and gently touch his soft nose and offer him a lovely dose of little girl affection. Chips of ice at the back of the wagon would be brushed into the cradle of a skirt and after a quick dash to the welcoming shade of a tree, the sisters would sit and let the delicious cool of the ice melt in their mouths.
Excitement in Ithaca in my mother’s childhood went beyond fires, gentle horses, hopscotch and ice. Movies were being made in Ithaca…at the Wharton Studios in what is now Stewart Park. Stars like Pearl White and Lionel Barrymore and magician Harry Houdini walked the streets of Ithaca while filming on location amidst the breathtaking scenery at the foot of Cayuga Lake. It was during this heyday that my mother met and was befriended by legendary dancer and actress, Irene Castle.
By 1924 my mother was a freshman at Ithaca High School. Sister Kathryn had died that year, but there was the comfort and distraction of three younger siblings that had been added to the Purdy family-twelve year old Esther, seven year old Ruth and five year old brother, Bill. Elizabeth was still at Grandma Smith’s home and Mary had married the previous year so that left my fifteen year old mother as the eldest child in the household and without the company of her sister companions that had comforted her. Florence and Burt by this time were most definitely strangers under the same roof. Money was scarce and it wasn’t long before my mother left school, her family home and her childhood behind. Mom found a room at a girl’s only boarding house and cleaned houses by day and took courses at night to pass her GED and then went on to secretarial school where she learned dictation, typewriting and bookkeeping. The flighty young teen that danced with Franchot Tone at Delta Tau Delta became a serious adult before her eighteenth birthday.
Deborah and a Serious Young Man
Ferg…as my siblings and I affectionately call our mother…or Grace L ….worked as a secretary at the Morse Chain where she met my father, Albert E. Martin. “He was a serious young man,” Mom told me many times. Dad was a shipping clerk in those days and the serious young man worked his way up to be one of their youngest traffic managers and making enough money to finally marry my mother on July 30, 1932.
The first four years of their marriage brought my three brothers, Gale, Dave and Dick into the world and my mother’s previous life of female influence was overturned by the masculine whirlwind of three boys, dogs, train sets and constant roughhousing. During that time my brothers and my parents moved into their first home, a little white house on York Street where my father finished the wood floors. Dad was a volunteer fireman at that time and my mother loved to tell me about the night that he had to climb out their bedroom window to respond to his fire company’s alarm. He had just finished the lovely, golden oak floors and they were perfect. I understand that part of my father. I have in my own way leaped out of a number of “windows” to preserve my masterpieces.
Before World War II Dad left Morse Chain and opened his own businesses in Ithaca…first a gas station and then a full service parking garage on State Street. Business was good and after the war, my parents built their house on South Plain Street and welcomed their first girl…me…eleven days after the death of my maternal grandmother. Five years later when my parents were in their mid-forties, my sister Mary was born.
Mom was the only sister to remain in Ithaca and had more intimate and constant contact with her parents and Grandma Smith than her siblings during that time. Burt and Florence lived separate lives sometime after 1930. In 1937 Burt was 63 years old and living with his 89 year old mother at 307 Eddy Street and, no longer a haberdasher, is working at his older brother’s profession as a house painter. By 1944 Burt and Florence are clearly living apart as evidenced by their individual listings in Manning’s Ithaca Directory. Burt is in the nursing home on Geneva Street suffering from what my mother described as “milk leg” – a lay term of the day for phlebitis. Burt blamed his condition on the incessant ladder climbing of his late in life career. Florence is living as a housekeeper on South Meadow Street RD5 with her friend, DeForest G. “Ducky” Drake.
My parent’s South Plain Street home was within walking distance to South Meadow Street, but my grandmother suffered greatly from debilitating arthritis and almost exclusively went everywhere in her coupe…her pride and joy. Mobility was so difficult for her at that time that she would often park the car in our driveway and visit with my mother there. My brothers loved the gadgetry and knobs and if they boyishly fiddled with her car, Florence would gently chide, “Don’t meddle, dolly”.
“Ducky” was a fisherman…as were my young brothers. Ithaca with its gorges and streams is a fisherman’s paradise and many times my brothers, pole slung over their shoulders and a baloney sandwich packed for the excursion, would come upon Ducky fishing at Enfield Falls with our grandmother comfortably ensconced in her coupe under a nearby tree.
My clearest memories of my mother’s emotional connection to her sisters and brother…aside from visits to Buffalo, New York, Texas and Massachusetts…revolved around Christmas. My mother loved Christmas and with very little money to create the delights of her favorite holiday, my mother puts Martha Stewart with her open-ended budget to shame. My father had died in 1958 having lost his business in the early 1950’s. We had been broke and struggling in Auburn ever since, but my mother’s Purdy style…or perhaps it was more of the determined spirit of her grandmother, Grandma Smith…manifested. We strung popcorn and cranberries and the rich tones of a newly purchased Nat King Cole album uplifted our hearts.
With a new spring in her step and her eyes sparkling with Christmas spirit and a precious small sum in her purse, my mother boarded the bus for downtown Auburn where she purchased red beeswax candles and gold and silver sequins and a few yards of red organdy. Cigars were packaged in crisp, white tissue for “Brother”. That snowy weekend mom made hot chocolate and my sister and I sat at our kitchen table and pushed pinned, glittering sequins into the beeswax while my mother meticulously sewed festive holiday cocktail aprons for her sisters. My mother was happy again after my father’s sudden death in the blizzard of February 1958 and all it took was a bit of sequins, a waft of organdy and a bundle of cigars…and some childhood stories told to her daughters over steaming cups of cocoa.
I mistakenly thought of my mother as a lone, brave figure during those sad years. Thinking about my mother…really considering her and her life proved me wrong. Oh, she was brave. But she wasn’t lone. Her siblings were in Buffalo and Texas and Massachusetts and in those days that might as well have been on the moon. My mother never drove and riding the bus to downtown Auburn…was her accommodation for travel…transplanting the trolleys she rode in her Ithaca youth. Letter writing and lovely cards with the occasional excitement of a long distance call had to suffice for the more satisfying visit over a cup of tea. Despite the passing of decades and her sense of overwhelming geographic distances, my mother was as close to her sisters and brother…and mama and papa…as the Ithaca Days she held in her heart.
Esther Madonna Purdy
My grandmother must have been feeling very biblical and maternal when her fifth daughter was born. Esther’s biblical character was born in poverty, but eventually became the Queen of Persia. Chosen for her beauty by Persian King Xerxes, Esther proved to be not only beautiful, but wise and kind and a woman of great courage. Florence’s great hopes for her daughter’s future were certainly embodied in her choice of names. Sentimental promise was the only dowry that Florence Purdy could provide her newborn daughter in 1912.
In the early summer of 1953 my mother ignored her sense of security with the earthbound transportation afforded by trolleys and buses and boarded a TWA airplane with my sister and me and flew to Dallas with a stopover in Chicago. We were going to the moon…to Texas…to visit my mother’s sister, Esther whose King was not Xerxes of Persia, but oilman L. B. Mulloy of Longview, Texas. I distinctly remember the experience of walking to the airplane across the tarmac and holding my breath against the strong odor of aviation fuel all the while hanging onto my mother’s skirt. “Stay with mommy,” my mother shouted above the high-pitched whine of idling engines.
I was six years old that early summer and discernment and awareness was beginning to wire itself into my blond head. Approaching the steps to the airplane, I peered around my mother’s skirt and saw a flight of stairs that appeared insurmountable. One breathtaking scoop and I was in the arms of the gray uniformed copilot and being brought up the steps like visiting royalty. He was Prince Charming and Flash Gordon with a hint of Old Spice. Civility and elegance was part of the flight experience in those days. The flight crews were romantic figures…always crisply dressed and the essence of good manners and style. Passengers dressed in their finest Sunday attire. Ladies and Gentlemen. Hats and Gloves. Sweatshirts were for college jocks and never left the locker room. Travel by air was elegant.
Our flight to Texas had one stop over…in Chicago. The trip was a stomach dropping introduction into flight. We hit violent thunderstorms with updrafts around the Great Lakes and by the time we landed at O’Hare, the adults were as gray as the flight crew’s uniforms. Ashen and shaken the passengers were escorted to the terminal gate for their connection to the Dallas leg of the flight. After a period of time, a TWA representative came to the cluster of travelers to personally inform us that all flights were grounded until the next day when the storms were expected to have cleared. We were in Chicago…somewhere between the moon and Auburn, New York…in the days before credit cards and cell phones and when a woman carried only enough cash for a lovely sandwich and a cup of tea. But it was 1953 and Howard Hughes owned TWA and ladies and young children weren’t left to their own devices in the cavernous O’Hare terminal overnight. Nosirree.
Once again…in the arms of a uniformed TWA officer, my exhausted little body was held aloft and swept along to our waiting hotel room with a heated bottle of milk and a crib for my sister and a warm meal and hot bath for my mother and me. All courtesy of Texas resident and celebrity, Mary Martin…a stranded fellow traveler. Miss Martin was returning to her Texas home from Chicago and was intrigued to see my sister’s name beside hers on the passenger roster…Mary Martin…and being informed of our dilemma saw to it that we were treated to a good dose of Texas style hospitality. Texas, here we come.
There were horses…and cows…and fences…and barns and a neat little house at the end of a dirt road with a quaint little pond with bullfrogs, but the setting could not have been more foreign to me than if we did indeed land on the moon. The grass was not lush, soft and green and the earth was gritty and almost without color. And the ants were not benign little critters that scurried through the blades and across the sidewalk, but biting, ferocious monsters whose stinging brought grown men to tears. Still there was my aunt’s lemonade and her iced tea and barbecues that brought neighbors from everywhere and lasted past my bedtime. The cows were steers and not the gentle black and white bossies of my central New York family farms.
Cousins Wayne and Gay Andrea were young adults that summer and walked among the “big people” occasionally giving notice to their little cousin with a pat on the head. Andrea was a blond Texas young lady coming into her own and one afternoon I sat mesmerized on the porch next to a pair of deliciously white majorette boots…smelling of fresh polish and sporting new pompoms…watching Andrea deftly twirl and toss a baton. I drove my mother crazy that year with my adoration of Andrea and the image of the flashing and spinning baton. That Christmas, nestled under the tree and just the right size for a six year old, a pair of white boots and a baton found its way from the Lone Star state.
My cousin, Mike and I became fast companions as we were the closest in age and definitely “middle” children. He taught me to collect eggs and how to avoid the perturbed hens and the lord of the yard, the large rooster. He showed me a black snake and like any good southern gentlemen, didn’t chase me with it to make me scream. I had my first taste of watermelon in that hot Texas summer and Mike gamely showed me the ropes of biting the cold, wet pulp and spitting out the seeds. In the summer of 2009 Mike and I eschewed the gathering of eggs and spitting watermelons seeds for gathering with our Purdy family in Ithaca and ice cold martinis…which we definitely did not spit out.
Snuggled into the first floor bedroom, I fell asleep to the sounds of my mother and her sister, Esther’s voices as they sat on the front porch surrounded by the deep Texas night. Their voices were so alike that at first it was hard to tell them apart, but the drop of a flat A or the intrusion of a “y’all” identified each sister nestled in the darkness.
My sister learned to walk that summer and I went to school that fall with a decided Texas drawl…y’alling my way around the James Street schoolyard until time and the lack of Texas family leached it away.
Ruth Norma Purdy
The year before her birth her forty–two year old father had declared bankruptcy. Nothing was new in the Purdy household that year except little Ruth and father Burt who had been a haberdasher since his eighteenth birthday was out of work. Ithaca was having an economic struggle at that time and retail took the biggest hit.
Little Ruthie, as my mother spoke of her, was her living doll. She carried her about and mothered Ruth in a way that only an eight year old sister is capable of. That was a hard year and it distinctly marked my mother’s in such a way that her recollections would pendulum swing from warm familial love to the hurt of a child that knows true poverty.
Ruth’s short life was framed by her family’s economic shortcomings, cataclysmic fire, older sister Kathryn’s death and her own tragic death at the age of nine. On a warm April day, she and her childhood friend, Lillian Hull, sat on the steps outside the Ithaca neighborhood store after the rare treat of a purchase of penny candy. The two girls instantly died…crushed under the automobile driven by a retired Cornell professor who lost control of his new vehicle…stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake. Everyone knew the Purdys and someone was sent to fetch my grandmother. She ran down the street, her long hair falling from its carefully placed pins, calling for her child and finally arriving at the horrifying scene, falling to her knees. My mother told me that my grandmother’s waist length hair “turned white overnight” that year.
And then there was Bill…Billy…Brother. Curtis Wilmot Purdy to be precise. On February 4, 1919 the Purdy household finally had a boy and baby Curtis was immediately and affectionately called “Brother”. As was a common tradition of the time, a son was given a family name, but this time, the only son was not given his father’s name or even his grandfather’s. He was given his mother’s maiden name and his uncle’s first name. In retrospect it is fitting that Bill was given his mother’s maiden name. Mother and son were exquisitely and exclusively tied with love and affection for one another.
Burt had found his economic footing having spent a year or so working for the World War I effort building wooden frames for biplanes at the Thomas Morse Airplane Company. By the time his son was born, he was back in the retail business and managing the men’s apparel establishment, the Square Deal Clothing Store on 110 South Cayuga Street. Burt had his beloved bowler hats again and now at long last, a son to carry on the Purdy name.
Uncle Bill as the young prince of the family knew the infinite and sentimental affection of the women in his family while his father fitted and fussed over the young gents of the day and their finery. Unlike his grandfather, Elbert, Bill did not spend his days in the aisles of his father’s mercantile, but instead wiled his early days under the influence and admiration of his sisters and mother.
Bill was always larger than life. At the slightest provocation or with none at all, he sang Irish ballads in a clear and true tenor voice. His cigars were monumental and if you were not fleet enough to avoid it, you were left gingerly comforting your cheek after one of his hearty pinches. If you asked for a sandwich, he would order a steak. No distance was too great, no weather too extreme to waylay the loyalty and love of Uncle Bill.
Orange Juice, Cigars and The Blizzard of ‘58
A brutal central New York blizzard in the February of 1958 brought about the death of my 52 year old father. I was ten years old. My sister was five and my brothers were grown and gone. My father died at my feet on our kitchen floor of a massive coronary and his body was carried over the two story drifts to a waiting snow plow truck. We were in shock and numb…our little ship adrift. My brother, Dick, was stationed at Quonset Point, RI, near my uncle’s Massachusetts home. Bill hung up the phone, packed his bags, kissed my Aunt Mary and two year old cousin, Chris, stuck a cigar into the corner of his mouth and headed out into the Nor’easter.
The first leg of his trip was to get to my brother in Quonset Point and Bill bullied the car through the storm, tucked Dick into the front seat and set out for New York State. The New York State Thruway Berkshire and New England connections wouldn’t be opened until the fall of that year and that meant driving through the howling storm on the switchback roads and hairpin turns of the Berkshires and Adirondacks and through the Mohawk Valley. Bill’s sales territory had been Elmira and Penn Yan in his post WWII days and he knew not only the location of every gas station, but he was on a first name basis with damned near every owner. Hands clutching the wheel and crossing his now Catholic heart, he headed into the Mohawk Valley.
In the haste and grief of the moment my brother had packed and left his base without remembering to eat, but Bill had come armed with a big brown sack of baloney sandwiches. Unfortunately, Bill had left behind anything for the pair to drink and despite the sad circumstances, this is where the story has always put my family on the floor with laughter.
Somewhere around the city of Amsterdam, my brother couldn’t ignore his thirst. It had become so acute due to the salty baloney sandwiches that it had become an obsessive craving for orange juice. Undaunted and determined to get his nephew the comfort he craved, Bill pulled into the nearest Mom and Pop store he spied. Besides this was as good time as any to gas up the car, light a cigar and “take care of business”. Bill had been steadily driving, leaning into the windshield to stay on the road, for over twelve hours.
Standing near the front entrance of the little store was the newest acquisition of the store owner…a vending machine. With orange juice. Now put away the modern day experience of cold, canned or boxed juice…or if you have a penchant for crap…orange drink. This tribute to 1950’s technology offered FRESH! SQUEEZED! ORANGE JUICE! Unfamiliar with the vending gadget, my brother put in the proper amount of coins…and nothing happened. Crazed for juice…exhausted…tense…grief stricken, Dick kept feeding the coins into the hungry monster waiting for something to happen that would slake his thirst. The car freshly gassed up, extinguished cigar butt resting on a snow bank and business taken care of, Bill came to fetch Dick and get back on the road.
Upset and maddened by thirst, Dick haltingly explained that no juice was coming out despite putting in the coins. Bill patted my brother on the shoulder and pressed the PUSH button. My brother blushed, but was too grateful and anticipating the juice when…well, the juice hit the fan. The first cup dispensed, an orange half dropped down, was gently squeezed and voila. There was juice. And the oranges kept coming. Cups and cups and oranges and oranges endlessly dropped down, the two men barely keeping up with the process. Dick had inadvertently dropped enough coins in the vending machine to basically clean out its inventory, but in the end, he and Bill had had a much needed laugh…and a few gallons of freshly squeezed orange juice for the rest of the trip home.
My Uncle Bill was sentimental enough to cry without shame, sing at the top of his voice in public, smoked cigars and drank Irish whiskey despite his physician’s pleas, regularly played poker…for money… on Friday nights with the parish priests and smothered his family with unabashed love and affection. His Massachusetts home was always open to family members…whether you wanted to or not. Bill didn’t take “No” for an answer. You were a captive…locked in with an overwhelming abundance of love. My Aunt Mary dealt with all of his larger-than-life drama with an occasional “Christ, Bill” and his son, Christopher worked his way through his father’s loving pride with what I can only call good Irish humor. But in the company of his sisters, he was Brother and crying and singing and smoking and drinking, poker and smothering Purdy love was legend and inevitable.
In our 2009 Purdy Gathering in Ithaca, Chris and I fell into the easy habit of Purdy reminiscing-something he and I have done over the years -in person, in letters and now emails and blogs. Ithaca is a magnet for us and there is something physical about our “going home” to Ithaca. It is easy to walk those streets and sense our family there. We will be back for a stroll down Cayuga Street and a hike up into “the heights” and to listen for the sounds of the long gone trolley or the nicker of a dappled gray horse and in classic Purdy sentimentality share the rich stories of our Purdy family.
I apologize to all those who worked their way through this lengthy post. I had not intended it to be immense, but once a Purdy is wound up to tell a story and it is about a cast of Purdys… you…and I…are all but doomed.
So thank you for your tenacity and I hope it was good for you…it was for me.