Charlotte Hannabury is climbing a narrow set of stairs, warning her visitor to lean in to avoid collision with the low ceiling.
They are ascending to Charlotte’s favorite place in a beloved home, her “upstairs living room,” a bright, spacious chamber with skylights. The walls are lined with framed black and white images, portraits, keepsakes and stacks of photo albums.
“I go up and down those steps many times a day,” she said. “That gives you a little bit of an idea about my life, and who I am, and how much I love my family.”
Charlotte’s home on West Neck Road was built in 1854. Her father, William Congdon, lived in the house for all but three of his 101 years. Charlotte’s mother, Olive, who lived to be 98, gave birth to Charlotte near the start of the Great Depression in the dining room.
Charlotte doesn’t remember much about the Depression except this: “I would ask my mother if I could have a nickel for an ice cream cone, and her reply, in a very soft voice, would be, ‘Not today.’”
One of eight graduates in the Shelter Island School Class of 1948, she was a cheerleader, played saxophone in the band (after an ill-fated attempt at the clarinet) and was in all the school plays. An only child, Charlotte remembered she was not prepared for 1st grade and there was no such thing as kindergarten.
“The teachers worked very hard with the students,” she said. “ We got a good education and a good foundation.”
Charlotte was in high school when her father sent her to Greenport with $30 to buy a coat. When she arrived, the store was closed and she wound up at the American Legion Hall indoor skating rink, with a problem.
Unwilling to leave what was then a considerable amount of money unattended, she skated up to a handsome skating instructor named Edward (Pete) Hannabury and asked, “Do you think you could possibly hold my wallet for me until I leave?”
Pete later said he figured if she trusted him enough to ask, he’d better find out who she was, which he accomplished by going into the men’s room to look for her name in the wallet.
“We started skating together and we were together from that day on,” Charlotte said.
Edward and Charlotte were married at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church on November 25, 1950 in a howling storm that allowed only two ferry crossings — one to bring the wedding flowers from the South Fork and one for the groom and his family from Cutchogue on the North Fork.
The newlyweds lived in the house where Charlotte grew up for the first five years of their marriage.
“My mom and dad had one room and we had the other,” she remembered. Their first child, Cheryl, was born in 1952. Soon after the family moved into a new home on Brander Parkway, where son William was born.
From the moment she graduated from high school, Charlotte began working: in the local office of the New York telephone company, at the Dering Harbor Inn and, for the 10 years that Pete was with the Shelter Island Police Department, she answered the police phone, located in their home.
For seven years she and Pete operated The Osprey Restaurant in the building that now houses Maria’s Kitchen and the Shelter Island Brewery. Later, Pete served as Town Justice for 24 years and served two terms as President of Suffolk County Magistrates. He passed away on New Year’s Day 2003.
Their son Bill was a Shelter Island police officer for 20 years and lives on the Island with his wife, Casey. “My son,” said Charlotte, “is so good to me.”
Bill’s sons are Caleb, who lives in Brooklyn, and Shane, living in Dallas. Now grown men, their every accomplishment is documented, photographed and framed in Charlotte’s upstairs living room.
Charlotte’s oldest, Cheryl, demonstrated artistic talent from an early age. She went to International Fine Arts College in Miami, Florida, and worked 13 years for a London-based music company, traveling to Puerto Rico, Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong.
In 1992, Cheryl, then 37 years old, was living in Paris, working for Euro Disney, which was opening a massive entertainment park in France. “You should have seen her apartment in Paris,” Charlotte said.
“She had the flair, the flair when she dressed, the flair for decorating.”
Cheryl’s work had caught the attention of Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, who recognized her with a hand-written certificate of thanks — a document that now hangs prominently in Charlotte’s upstairs living room.
But Cheryl was not feeling well and decided to come home to her family and friends on Shelter Island.
By the time she returned, she had stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and no health insurance. She learned she would need a bone marrow transplant.
“It wasn’t just battling the disease,” Charlotte said. “It was being uninsured.”
Cheryl opened STARS, a café in the Heights that became a community gathering place and remains so to this day. With her father behind the counter making lattes, the force of Cheryl’s warm personality made it a success. She ran it until her death in July 2002.
Throughout the 10 years Cheryl lived with her illness, her family and friends came through with financial and spiritual support.
Dr. Glenn Heinze worked with a local hospital to negotiate a price for the transplant that took into account Cheryl’s uninsured status. The Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, led at the time by Pastor
Bill Grimbol, made a significant financial contribution that along with Cheryl’s life savings made the procedure possible.
When Cheryl needed a second bone marrow transplant, the entire community came together for the Island Gift of Life Foundation benefit. The foundation began as Cheryl’s dream, which her friends and family brought to life.
The charity continues to provide financial support to families of people suffering life-threatening diseases — particularly expenses not covered by health insurance — and to encourage people to register as bone marrow donors.
Charlotte said, “Her dream lives on. The hope that others could be healed. That is the kind of person Cheryl was.”
The 16th annual Island Gift of Life benefit will be held this Saturday, March 5 at the Ram’s Head Inn.
For more information, please visit islandgiftoflife.org.