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100 Christmases: A visit with Alma Ryder

COURTESY PHOTO Alma Ryder recently celebrated her 100th birthday.
COURTESY PHOTO Alma Ryder recently celebrated her 100th birthday.

Alma Ryder’s earliest memory of Christmas is listening to the radio as her grandfather trimmed a Christmas tree. The 100-year-old Ms. Ryder was one of three sisters, but while her siblings lived with their mother, she was sent to live with her grandparents.

Grandfather made his own beer back in those days, and she hated the taste of it, she remembered, speaking with a visitor recently at her home at San Simeon by the Sound in Greenport.

But years later, beer would become her “tonic” on the road to better health after the birth of her son Charles. Ms. Ryder — Brower then — spent two months in the hospital, so ill she almost died.

On the advice of her physician, Dr. Donald Curry, she started imbibing, initially splitting a bottle with her husband, Howard Ryder, who would bring the beer to the hospital each evening. Not only did she learn to like beer, but confesses that over time, her liking led to more than one bottle a day.

Today, Ms. Ryder is visited regularly by her daughter, Melva McLaughlin, who lives in Sag Harbor. Son Charles, known to locals as “Bub,” lives in New Hampshire, so gets to visit his mom less often.

Ask her about this Christmas and her response is quick and direct: “I can’t get excited one bit about it.

“The old gang is all gone,” she added, a touch of sadness in her voice.

COURTESY PHOTO Alma, at age 3.
COURTESY PHOTO Alma, at age 3.

But one bright spot this year was receiving a card from the daughter of long-time friend, Mary Cronin. The daughter wrote that the card was in memory of Ms. Cronin, and it perked her up, Ms. Ryder said.

She misses the days when she could knit, but her eyesight has diminished. She knows that scattered in homes throughout Shelter Island there are scarves, sweaters, tablecloths, doilies, bedspreads and other items she made through the years as a member of the Thimble Club — women who met weekly, each bringing her own handiwork, and sharing news of the day with one another.

If you shopped at the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church St. Nicholas Day Fair in past years, you may have purchased items made by Ms. Ryder.

That there is a St. Mary’s Episcopal Church today is, at least in part, thanks to her. She was among those who revived it in the 1950s as president of St. Mary’s Church Women, getting the church back on its feet.

And not so many years ago, Ms. Ryder was a Silver Circle member who knitted hats, mittens and sweaters for military veterans.

Much of the Island wasn’t built out when she was growing up here. She never knew street names, she said, but simply knew where her friends lived.

What’s more, unlike today when students in pre-K through grade 12 all know one another, that wasn’t the case when she was in school. There wasn’t a single building, but classes for different age groups were held in individual houses, she remembered. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the oldest part of today’s school was built.

Ms. Ryder recalls a time in her youth before North Ferry ran at night between the Island and Greenport. Instead, Islanders would board a small motor boat at Piccozzi’s Dock to reach the mainland, she said.

A true Harelegger, she was born here on September 22, 1916, in one of the oldest houses on the Island. Islanders will know it as the Case House across from Goat Hill on West Neck Road.

She has a vague memory of early automobiles coming to the Island, replacing old horse and buggy traffic. But she has a clear memory of the ice man coming to deliver blocks of ice to keep food cold. If you didn’t empty the tray under the ice box regularly, you were in trouble, she said.

The 1934 graduate of Shelter Island High School held various jobs before training to become a telephone operator here. But she never accepted the midnight shift to which she was assigned because it would have meant walking back and forth three miles each way.

“Instead, I got married,” she says with a sly smile. She and Howard were wed in 1937 at St. Ann’s Church in Bridgehampton, with Hap and Isabelle Johnston Bowditch along for the ride as witnesses. Following the ceremony, the two couples went to a movie in Southampton, where her new husband walked off with the princely sum (in those days) of $25, thanks to a winning raffle ticket.

COURTESY PHOTO Alma with her husband, Howard, during a tender moment on their 40th anniversary.
COURTESY PHOTO Alma with her husband, Howard, during a tender moment on their 40th anniversary.

Back on the Island, while her husband made a living largely on the water — fishing, clamming and scalloping — as well as hunting in the winter, Ms. Ryder held several jobs, initially helping part-time Islanders open and close their houses for the season, At one point, one of the families needed a laundress, so Ms. Ryder added that to her responsibilities. She also became a personal assistant to one of the families, handling various work, including bookkeeping.

Her longevity has given her four items she prizes today — certificates from Shelter Island Town, Greenport Village, Congressman Lee Zeldin and a birthday card from President Barack Obama.

What’s her secret to a long life? Ms. Ryder summed it up simply: “There is no secret.”