February 2 is Groundhog Day. We all know that, but for me, I also think of my grandmother today. On this day in 1895 Grandma’s mother was born—Mary Gertrude Downey. My grandma had an older brother, Jim, and when he was first shown his baby sister, his mother said, “Come see your little sister.” Apparently, he began to call her “Sister” or “Sis” from that moment on, and to everyone, including my grandfather, she was forever Sis.
Her childhood was much nicer than that of her own children because her father, TJ Downey, was quite a prosperous businessman around town, owning Downey’s Tavern and Bottling Shop on Boonton Avenue. (Google TJ Downey Boonton and you will find him on the first hit.)
She took piano lessons when she was five from a nun at Mt. Carmel, who told Grandma’s mother that “little Sis” was her youngest pupil ever. As the oldest daughter of her family, she was given much responsibility at a young age, helping her mother with each baby that arrived. The first was “Little Tim” when Grandma was two, followed by Julia the next year and Leonard when she was just five.
There was much tragedy in her family during the early years. Three of her siblings died quite young—two before the age of four and the third at the age of thirteen. Apparently, after the death of thirteen-year old Julia, Grandma’s grandmother was so distraught that she went out to the wood shed and screamed and screamed until she could scream no longer. She returned to the house calmed and better able to cope with the losses.
Grandma always said that her grandfather apparently liked to get the latest “gadgets” as they came out. My grandmother apparently did the family ironing, heating the iron on the coals, which was quite difficult during the heat of the summer. When electric irons were invented, TJ bought one, and she became the happy ironer after that. Her family was one of the first in town to have a telephone. Their number was “4”—just one digit. People in town who did not have a phone would call their house and ask one of the kids to deliver a message for them, even if it meant a long hike to pass on the message.
She met my grandfather, I believe, at Mt. Carmel, where they were both members of the drama club. They were married in June 1920, and then she quit her job to set up their home in a three-room apartment adjacent to her mother’s home. (Her father had died three years earlier after a short illness.) Back then, it was unusual for women to remain in the workforce after their marriage.
Their first child, Uncle Larry, arrived the following year and my grandparents moved to a larger apartment. As their family expanded in size, they continued to move to larger rentals around town until finally purchasing their first home twenty years after their marriage with the help of my grandfather’s brother, Joe.
So her marriage produced six children, who in turn, produced thirty grandchildren, and sixty-seven great grandchildren. I remember that my grandma loved to brag about her family. It was a tough life for her, but I have no memories of hearing her complain about anything but that “damn old knee.” Happy Birthday, Grandma.