Monday, May 10, 2010

What's in a Name?

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
~ John Quincy Adams

When a little café opened around the corner a few months back, the cashiers began asking customers for their names. At first, when I was the only customer, I refused on principle — it’s not as if they were introducing themselves. But now that I’m one of a crowd waiting for take-out, I’ve decided to comply. I told them my name is Ella.

Why Ella? Because it brings to mind one of my unsung personal heroes, my Aunt Ella. So today I sing of Ella.

My mother taught me many invaluable lessons — to treat people with respect, to stay calm when others were not, to make people feel welcome and to understand that when people were unkind, it was their problem, not mine. Ella taught me something just as important: that once you truly set your mind to do a thing, nothing is impossible. This blurry photo shows Ella at the far left and my mother at the right. (I am the preteen child with the hideous green bow.)

Ella Conrad Van Aken, the youngest of three sisters, was born in 1884 in Kingston, New York, where Dutch settlers put down roots in 1651. When she was a toddler, her parents became managers of a hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Those were the days when Asbury Park was a high-end resort, not the rundown seaside town Bruce Springsteen later sang about. The postcard shown here is not the hotel where Ella grew up — I don't think the Van Akens' property was anywhere near as grand — but it does offer a good sense of the era.

Ella was a tiny, bright, curious child who charmed the hotel guests so thoroughly, people would take her home to Philadelphia or Washington or Boston for visits. By the time she was ten she had seen, if not the world, at least major points of interest in the Northeastern U.S.

Five closely spaced recessions in the 1890s destroyed Asbury Park's resort hotel business. And so it was that in 1902, when few women had office jobs, teen-aged Ella worked as a bookkeeper at Scribner & Sons on Fifth Avenue. (This photo shows the Scribner’s storefront, a New York City landmark. The building is now occupied by Sephora, but the Scribner & Sons name remains on the facade.)

By 1910 Ella’s oldest sister, Jeanette, had “married an Englishman” and moved to London, and Ella and her middle sister, Bessie, lived in a rental apartment in Manhattan’s 12th  Ward — the area above 86th Street. It was near a 12th Ward subway stop that Ella first caught sight of my father’s handsome Uncle Jim — James McConville. Eventually, someone arranged an introduction. Soon they married and became two of the first tenants to move to the then brand-new community of Jackson Heights, Queens. (The photo below shows a street of those original Jackson Heights apartments today.)

By the time I got to know Ella in the 1950s, she was a widow and had recently learned to drive. She was also quite deaf and wore hearing aids that whistled. She still lived in Jackson Heights, but had moved to a smaller apartment than the one in which she and Jim had raised their son, James, Jr. Ella’s apartment was the first place where I ever saw a kitchenette; Ella’s was tucked behind a pair of louvered doors.

Ella used to look after my sisters and I when my parents were traveling. She taught me how to draw a cardigan sweater with tiny buttons down the front — an urgent fashion accessory for my paper dolls. Somehow, this opened my eyes to the world of three-dimensional objects; no more stick figures for me!

Ella was a lifelong rye drinker, a serious bridge player and a person with strong opinions about fashion. If you wore an outfit Ella didn’t like, she would say, “That doesn’t do anything for you.” She understood something most people have forgotten: Clothes are supposed to make you look good, not vice-versa.

Ella was in her early 70s when she first announced she was “ready to fold her arms” — by which she meant, die. She gave up her apartment, took her favorite furniture and mementos and moved to a sunny, private room in what was then called the Miriam Osborn Home for Indigent Protestant Gentlewomen.

The Osborn, an enormous Westchester mansion surrounded by landscaped gardens, shady trees and sweeping lawns, was founded by philanthropist Miriam Osborn in the 1890s as a place for impoverished older women to enjoy their final years. And while it has changed in recent years, in Ella's day, that's exactly what it was.

Ella immediately settled into the surprisingly competitive bridge scene. If she or any other resident wanted to go shopping, a limousine showed up. It was quite the life, and Ella enjoyed it so much that she lived and lived, despite her arm-folding protestations.

By the time she was in her mid-80s, Ella stopped telling people her age — she was afraid newcomers would think she was too old to play bridge. But when she reached her late 90s, aches and pains were troubling her and again she spoke about arm-folding. We made her promise to live to 100, so we could throw her a big party.

Ella finally folded those little arms of hers in February 1985 at age 100 and ¼, three months after her big birthday party. I still miss her and think of her all the time.

“Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.”
~ Dr. Seuss


  1. This is exquisite. We should all have an Aunt Ella, and I wish I had. Your photos are fantastic, too. And I have a new life ambition: to be an Indigent Protestant Gentlewoman.

  2. Susan, thank you. And you are so right. Everyone should have an Aunt Ella. As for the indigence of Protestant gentlewomen, that phrase has fascinated me for years. People had such interestingly formal ways of putting things in the 1800s.