A little less than three hours ago, my brother Don just called to tell me, Aunt Ethel died.
Born in the farming hamlet of Forest Lake, Pennsylvania, on January 31, 1910, during a blizzard so heavy that the doctor’s sleigh was unable to navigate the drifts, Ethel Anna Booth was delivered by her father, Frederick. Fred wrapped the newborn Ethel in a towel, then set her in a shoebox on top of the stove, keeping her warm while he attended to his wife, Carrie. William Howard Taft was president of the United States. Every American over 60 could remember the Civil War.
Aunt Ethel attended grammar school in a one-room school house. When I visited her in Texas last year—she had long ago moved from upstate New York to southern Texas, and she spent her final years in a nursing home in Harlingen—she explained that each of the children at the school house would arrive in the morning with a potato. The teacher would place the potatoes into the pot-bellied stove, and then, at lunchtime, serve each child a wonderfully hot baked potato, topped with a hunk of butter. When Aunt Ethel became a teenager, she attended Montrose high school, boarding five nights a week in town; the seven miles from the family farm to Montrose were too far to travel except on weekends. Aunt Ethel could recall when the family house was plumbed for running water and wired for electricity. She remembered her family’s first car—Grandpa Booth only used the car during the summer, when the roads, all of which were dirt, were dry and hard; from autumn until spring he put the car up on blocks in the stable, using horse-drawn wagons and sleighs. And all her life Aunt Ethel retained happy memories of her pony, Jewel. She would hitch Jewel to a pony cart, then give cart rides to her little sister Alice, my mother.
Raising her own three children during the Thirties and Forties, Aunt Ethel supplemented the family income by teaching school, and she kept a chicken coop at the bottom of the back yard, providing her children with eggs for breakfast. During the boom years of the Fifties and Sixties, her husband, Kenneth Dayton, worked in the Triple Cities for IBM, and Aunt Ethel, like millions of other Americans, found herself prosperous enough to enjoy herself. She took up golf, playing the game several times a week—with her lady friends during the week, and with Uncle Ken on weekends—until she was in her eighties.
Uncle Ken died almost a decade ago, but Aunt Ethel is survived by her three children, two daughters-in-law, seven grandchildren, and (if I have the count right), eleven great-grandchildren. By the time we lost her this morning, her life had spanned more than two-fifths of the life of the Republic. Aunt Ethel slipped away peacefully, a grand old lady in a still-young nation.