sandlass on the icePHOTO: Henry Sandlass with three of his five children, Ann, Sheila and Hank, on a cold day in the 1950s

muriel j smith 120It was an old upright piano and her grandmother playing her old favorites songs that inspired a teenager from Sea Bright to learn to play the piano.  She took piano lessons for two years as a teenager because she loved the strains of “Smoke gets in your Eyes” or “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” when she and her siblings arrived home from school as their Grandma serenaded them with music.

Or maybe it was the Christmases in the 1940s and 50s when the Shrewsbury River was almost frozen all the way from Sandlass Beach to Bahrs Restaurant in Highlands; it was too dangerous to ice skate there,  so families chose the safety of nearby McCarter’s Pond in Rumson, or the edge of the river just off Wardell Avenue in Rumson.

Or maybe it was the old Victrola, with Bing Crosby crooning out White Christmas from those 78 rpm records, or Perry Como’s Christmas medley that could melt the hardest of ices or hearts. They were the favorites of the other grandmother who also filled an entire family with love and happy memories; Helen Sandlass was the matriarch who with her husband William began the summer resort late in the 19th century. It was their home on the beach where family and friends gathered, always knowing there would be laughter, music..and love.

Whatever it was, the winter season, especially the Christmas season, was a most happy event around the Sandlass home at the north end of Sea Bright.

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Usually weeks before the holiday, the children all gathered for their traditional hunt for the gifts they knew they could expect.  Their parents always hid the presents around the house and the five siblings would go on a surreptitious hunt to find them.  It was a big part of the excitement.

sandlass children fireplace

Susan Gardiner of Maryland remembers it well. She’s one of the five Sandlass children brought up in the big house amid a loving three generations of family who loved the clamor, noise and excitement of summers filled with visitors and vacationers, but cherished the warmth of the big fireplace in the living room and the magic of family celebrating the holiday together during the wintertime. 

The piano stood in the foyer and it was Grandma Sheehan who especially brought it to life and gave Susan the yearning to play just like her.   And it was Grandma Sheehan’s sister, Susan’s Grand Aunt Ella, who was the star of the show at Christmas Dinner. Aunt Ella was the baker in the family and the entire family waited all year for her dessert buffet filled with pies and cakes she spent hours and days making. There were always four choices of pie: mince, apple, pecan, and lemon meringue, plus another two traditional cakes, chocolate and coconut. The kids began getting hungry for them as soon as all the aromas emanating from the ovens in the kitchen wafted through the air.

But desserts had to wait. First there was the grand Christmas dinner. That was always prepared by Mae Heineck, a cook extraordinaire, who arrived from her home in Highlands early in the morning to prepare the family’s huge feast, before heading back home to enjoy the day with her own family.

The kids never did learn where their Christmas tree came from. It just seemed to appear, magically, on Christmas Eve, brought in by their dad, Henry Sandlass, to be decorated with homemade and family-saved ornaments. It had its own place of honor in the big house….right in the corner of the living room next to the porch door. It always had to be tall enough to brush the ceiling with its highest branches and was filled with silver tinsel. Grandma Sandlass would have her favorite carols on the Victrola as everyone joined in decorating the tree before the young ones were whisked off to bed in anticipation of an exciting tomorrow.

And Christmas meant the Sandlass House would be filled with relatives and friends, all sitting around a roaring fire in the large fieldstone fireplace in the living room.  The dining room table for the festive dinner was always set with a  large snowman as the centerpiece, and four smaller snowmen on the table.

But first, the Sandlass siblings gathered in Grandma Sandlass’s room first thing upon wakening. The Senior Mrs. Sandlass always had a small tree under her bay window upstairs, and the first gifts were always the ones from her, found under that tree. Then it was downstairs for more,  their gifts beneath the family tree in the living room, a bedlam of laughter and excitement that only increased as cousins, aunts and uncles began arriving for the daylong celebration.

They had their own gifts to give as well. The children saved money during the year, so they could go out together a few days before Christmas to buy their own presents for their parents and grandparents.

sandlass and family

The years the river was partially frozen are the ones the kids remember the best. It would be filled with huge chunks of ice, chunks that moved very slowly down the river, under the bridge, and continued on their way to the Navesink, or, returning on the outward tide to head towards the tip of Sandy Hook. There were always the warnings, in spite of yearnings to hop scotch on ice floes across the river to Highlands, to stay off the chunks, which to youngsters looked like magnificent ice floes.

Today, that upright piano is still in the Sandlass House at the eastern edge of Gateway National Recreation Area at Sandy Hook. The house is boarded up, shabby looking, but wrapped up in a bit of anticipation now that a non-profit group, the New Jersey Coast Heritage Museum at Sandlass House, Inc., is making strides towards preserving it. The Park Service recently reported there are no immediate plans or funds for the building’s demolition; Congressman Frank Pallone has met with the organization’s leaders and dashed off a letter to the Parks Service in support of saving the building.

And the piano?  It’s still in the Big House, but now it’s in the corner of the family room, the only piece of furniture left from the Sandlass era.  If you listen carefully, it’s probably got some stories of its own to tell.

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Muriel J Smith

Muriel J Smith an award-winning journalist, former newspaper editor, book author and historian, Her newest venture is her blog, in...