July 30, 2012

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AUNT IDA
A recollection by
Joseph A. Citro
Shortly after I was born on January 5, 1948, my parents took me home from Rutland Hospital to 33 Pleasant Street in Ludlow, Vermont.
For a number of years I lived there with my mother, my father, and my Aunt Ida.

Aunt Ida wasn’t my aunt in any blood sense. She was my aunt in an old-fashioned way. Years ago it was proper for young people to address older women who were close to the family as “aunt”.
But such distinctions made no difference to the young me. I had lots of aunts, but she was the only one who lived in my house.
Later, when I had acquired some measure of consciousness, I discovered a secret. I realized it was not our house at all; it was hers. Aunt Ida was also our landlady. And, as time passed, there were still more secrets to discover about her.
Every memory of her is that she was old. She was in her seventies when I was born, so for me she played more the role of grandmother than aunt. My earliest memories are that we were all one family. In my developing brain, this was the arrangement: she had a house, and we had a house, and the two houses were connected by a single door leading from our dining room to her living room. Generally it was kept closed, but often used. We passed back and forth without knocking.  
I can remember opening the door slightly and peeking in. She’s be sitting in her padded rocking chair by the window, feet on a stool, her rectangular magnifying glass poised above the newspaper, a letter, or the Bible.
She was likely to see me, smile, and invite me to the couch where we’d sit side by side while she read to me. Mostly I remember the Thornton W. Burgess books with the wonderful illustrations by Harrison Cady. 
 On sunny days I’d often join her on the porch—the piazza, she’d call it. We’d sit in wooden high-backed rocking chairs while she taught me the names of the various birds that seemed so plentiful in those days. I remember bluebirds in particular; to me they looked like miscolored robins.
She kept flower gardens, a gigantic vegetable garden, and even a pear tree.
In the three years before my brother Rodney was born, I spent a lot of time with Aunt Ida.
Sometimes I’d wait on the porch for her. She never drove nor had a car. Instead she’s come walking home from the grocery store, the Baptist church, or the Bible school classes she taught.
It was a puzzle to me why we didn’t all go to the same church, but that, along with so many other things, seemed perfectly normal in those years.
Later, after my parents bought our own house, we continued to see Aunt Ida very regularly. My father and I would go to help her with the yard work or to manage the snow, which—like flowers and birds—seemed more plentiful back then. As she got older still, she’d come to stay with us during the Vermont winters that she had endured on her own for so many years. 
 I have no bad memories of Aunt Ida. She never forgot my birthdays and always had something under the tree for me each Christmas. In my mind she remains the quintessential sweet little old lady. I remember her caring for my brother and me when our parents were away. I remember peanut butter and homemade jelly sandwiches at her round kitchen table, looking out toward the backyard and the colorful bursts of her flower garden. I remember the dessert she made, a homemade confection something like ice cream taken from the freezer in ice cube trays.
She would then do the dishes in a metal dish pan using bits of recycled (of course we never used that term in those days) hand and bath soap broken up in a sealed metal basket with a handle. It was called a “soap saver”, I think. She’d swish it around in the dishwater summoning bubbles that billowed from the top of the pan. Quite different from the way things were done in our division where we had liquid dish soap and a double sink.
 She had been single all her life. Those who didn’t call her Aunt Ida addressed her as Miss Fuller. Someone told me that she had been in love and had planned to marry a man who was killed in the First World War. So she never married. Part of the story was that he had been a fighter pilot. I never asked her about this and have never learned the truth. I wouldn’t call it a secret, really, but if it were true she never talked about it.
Above all, she was a Vermonter through and through. She was born on a farm right there in Ludlow in 1874. She went to school with Calvin Coolidge. She was a teacher until 1905 (and was still teaching when I knew her, politely, often humorously correcting my grammar. “You ought to really know grammar,” she joked before giving me the scoop on split infinitives.
From 1905 until she retired in 1939 she worked as a legal secretary for John G. Sargent, who was Attorney General in the Coolidge Administration. She was a Republican. We all were in those days.
She was an independent, spirited, highly principled woman. Some might say she was ahead of her time, but she wouldn’t have gone along with that.
She never touched coffee or tea, always sipped a cup of hot water with her meals. She never raised her voice nor appeared to be angry or confused about anything. She could quote the Bible but didn’t, yet she lived and taught the principles of Jesus. “He’s as much alive now as he ever was,” she once told me.
Aunt Ida inadvertently achieved a modest degree of fame in her lifetime. I remember she was asked to go on network television, which was a really big deal in those days.
The producers for I’ve Got a Secret contacted her, inviting her to appear live with Garry Moore. She emphatically refused (but politely, though sternly, I imagine). It is not that she didn’t want her secret known. Rather, it was because she found out the show was sponsored by a tobacco company. (Perhaps needless to add, Aunt Ida never smoked nor owned a television). 
 When age made living alone impossible, Aunt Ida relocated to the home of her niece Hazel in West Brattleboro. She died in 1975 while I was living in Italy. She was one hundred years old.
But Aunt Ida didn’t take her secret to the grave. In fact, she is quite well known in certain circles to this day.
Ida May Fuller—Aunt Ida—was the first person in the United Stated to collect Social Security. The check, number 00-000-001, was issued to her on January 31, 1940. The amount: $22.54.
That was eight whole years before I met her.

Burlington VT
February 10, 2012.