Friday, February 15, 2008

Bob's Aunt Ethyl: A Remembrance

Hi Readers: This is only slightly horse-related, but I hope you'll read it anyway.

About two years into our relationship, my husband Bob told me that it was time to meet Uncle Danny and Aunt Ethyl--the tribal elders of the Crowley clan. Dan and Ethyl had been married for about 60 years, and both of them were octogenarians --and then some. Arrangements were made, and one Saturday we made the two hour trek to their home in Berlin, NJ. As a veteran of many large Kimmel family reunions, I had expectations of a pleasant but slightly dull visit. Trying to think of things to "do" with an old couple, I brought a selection of photos -- some Florida vacation photos and pictures of Bob's two sons. Bob recalled that Ethyl loved horses and had ridden in her youth. He suggested that I also bring some pictures of Harvey, my thoroughbred.

Our visit was anything but dull. Danny and Ethyl turned out to be movers and shakers of their tidy neighborhood, which consisted mostly of elderly couples. While physically fragile, both of them were great conversationalists. Danny, a World War II veteran and Wharton School graduate, was widely read, and we shared a love of the Sunday New York Times. He had an interest in politics, and the topic du jour was immigration reform. Aunt Ethyl, a chain smoker, was no slouch herself. She had a sharp wit and droll manner that you don't normally encounter in folks of that age. Conversation flowed easily, and apparently I passed muster where others before me had not. At lunch she leaned across the table to share small confidences. In a a stage whisper she regaled me with unflattering stories of Bob's other girlfriends. You can't imagine how much I enjoyed this. Bob speaks highly of his ex-girlfriends, and it is a deeply annoying trait.

Toward the end of the visit, I recalled the photos in my bag and I pulled them out. The old couple perused through them, and Ethyl took particular interest in the the photos of Harvey. She asked about his racing record, his age, where he was bred, and she remarked on his good looks. I assumed that she was being polite but was pleased anyway. Later as we were getting ready to leave, Bob asked Ethyl if she would like to keep any of the 20-odd photos. Ethyl shuffled through the family photos, and to our surprise she selected the two photos of Harvey. I was touched.

Ethyl's health declined quite a bit in the next year. When I last saw her, she was in the hospital with her family. While she was feeling good that morning the prognosis was poor. The mood was somber. Ethyl must have wanted to liven things up, because she turned to me asked in a bright voice, "So what's new in the horse world?" Surprised, I stammered out a answer. I'd read in the paper that morning that a record number of thoroughbred foals had been born that year in New Jersey. She smiled at that. From then on, whenever anyone entered the room, she exclaimed "Tell me something new. And I already know about the baby horses."

Ethyl was later moved to a convalescent unit of their community. A few months after her hospital stay, she passed away, with Danny at her side. Danny celebrated his 90th birthday in January of this year. For his present, the family asked me to scan some family photos into a digital picture frame. I was given nearly 100 family pictures spanning her lifetime. I had only known her for a brief period of time as an old woman whose face was worn haggard by time and smoking. In person, as well as in the recent photos, her sorrowful expression was oddly incongruent with the Ethyl I knew. Even in poor health, she was upbeat and resilient, always ready with a comeback.

When I received a packet of the photos of her youth, I had a revelation about Ethyl. "She was "a hottie!" I said to Bob. There is something so poignant in seeing a glimpse of Ethyl at a tender age, with her lovely gamine face and petite figure. How limited my view of Ethyl was! Of course all old women were young once--but these beautiful images made it real to me.

This new perspective on Ethyl led me to ask the family about her. She was a remarkable woman. A Brooklyn native, Ethyl led an unconventional life for her time. She was an independent spirit and loved outdoor activities--including horseback riding and horse racing. She was capable and outgoing. In an era where women were homemakers and mothers, she had a successful career with the Department of Defense. She met Danny through her job, and she continued to work after marriage--they had no children. At work and at home, they were always together. Even in the short time I knew them, I could tell that they were soulmates. "You couldn't imagine one without the other," Bob's sister Laura later told me. I wish I had known Ethyl back then. She was a very special lady.


  1. What a lovely story. She sounded very special and you brought her some happiness.

  2. Great story and wonderful memorial, Stacey. I love that she kept the pictures of Harvey. Cool shots of her at the end of the story. She looked like a movie star!

  3. Stacey, what a wonderful tribute to both Aunt Ethel & Uncle Dan. In the short time you knew her, you really touched her heart.
    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and memories.



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