My Aunt Nellie

Nellie Bly Curry was born in Key West in 1870. In the latter part of the 19th century, Miami was a small village and Key West was the richest city per capita in the United States. This was due to a large cigar making industry and a lucrative marine salvage business. Travel between the islands was by clipper ship. I have a portrait of my Aunt Nellie, when she about 30 we’d guess. She was a handsome and intelligent lady by all reports, but she never married.

The Key West Census of 1880 lists my Great Grandfather Richard Curry as Sheriff of Monroe County. He had a son and four younger daughters. My Aunt Nellie was next to the youngest and my grandmother, Grace, the youngest. Thomas Knowles, my grandfather, drowned in the 1906 hurricane. Grace was 36, with four small children, my father the youngest at six months. Grace remarried and kept her oldest and parceled her other children to her sisters to raise. My Aunt Emma and her husband Manuel Del Pino raised my father. For the longest time I never knew why all my father’s friends called him Pino. When Manuel died Aunt Nellie moved to live with Aunt Emma.

When my father came back from WWII and built our house, Nellie and Emma came to live with us. It was a three bedroom one bath house, my brother and I were in the front room, Mom and Dad in the middle and Aunt Emma and Aunt Nellie in the back room. Then when Aunt Emma died when I was six, I was moved in to sleep in My Aunt Nellie’s room. She had a big double bed and I had a small single one in the corner. Every night she combed out her hair and plaited it in a long braid down her back. By day she wore two plaits wrapped around the top of her head. She told me that she had never cut her hair. She always wore a dress and black sturdy lace-up shoes. She was 80 and I was five years old.

My memories of her are scattered. I remember one day. It must have recently rained as I was sitting outside the front gate making mud pies. Aunt Nellie came out to put breadcrumbs on the posts for the birds. A lady came by on a bicycle selling Benny Cakes and Coconut Candy from a large basket on the front of her bicycle. I think she came by often as she and Aunt Nellie chatted for a while.

Aunt Nellie had a large treadle sewing machine she operated with her feet. She kept it in our bedroom, no electricity required, just lots of human energy. She made all my and my brother’s clothes when we were very young and even some of my mother’s dresses. She taught my mother to crochet and using fabric scraps, to make circular rag rugs, which were scattered, around our home. She cooked our dinners for which my father rode his bike home from the Navy Yard to eat at noon with us. We had no car. My mother and Aunt Emma cleaned up and complained often that Nellie used every pot in the house. Aunt Nellie also made Queen of all Puddings, and custard in big brown custard cups and she collected guavas from a tree in the yard and made Guava Duff.

She made cushions for the big wicker chairs on the screened porch. She sewed leftover fabric into large squares and stuffed them with an inch thick stack of old newspapers. They made nice padded cushions that were heavy and stayed put. In her younger days she had worked at Applerouth’s children’s clothing store on Duval Street, and at Easter took me downtown to buy my Easter dress, hat and white shoes. Everyone was all decked out on Easter Sunday.

One day I must have talked back to Aunt Nellie and she told me that I was a sassy little girl. I said, “ I don’t care.” I was five. She said, “Do you know where Mr. I Don’t Care lives. Well, he lives in a big house all by himself. No one makes dinner for him, or takes care of him when he’s feeling sad or sick or reads to him at night; he is a lonely man with no friends or family.” I don’t remember answering her, but I thought about it and do remember what she said to this day.

One thought on “My Aunt Nellie”

  1. You made your Aunt Nellie real for me. My grandmother had a treadle sewing machine, too. When I spent a week with her in 1954, she sewed doll clothes for my Sweet Sue doll. She used scraps and rick rack from other sewing projects. I thought they were wonderful. In fact, when I was older I sewed doll clothes for a neighbor’s daughter.

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