Three sisters honor parents with Toy Fund donation
Nancy Wilson at her parents grave site, Dorothy and Gerry Custeau. Purchase photo reprints »
WHATELY — Christmas will be bittersweet this year for Nancy Wilson of Whately and her sisters, Cynthia Custeau of South Deerfield and Carrie Kusza, who lives in Maryland. It will be their first without either parent.
Their father, Gerard Custeau, died Dec. 28, 2011; their mother, Dorothy Custeau, died in January 2008. The Custeaus settled in Northampton in 1952 and the family lived for many years on Ryan Road in Florence.
When “the girls” — as their parents called them even decades after they’d left girlhood behind — gather on Christmas Day, along with their spouses, partners and children, they’ll no doubt reminisce about their parents.
“I’m sure there will be tears,” Wilson said — along with moments of reflection, funny stories and laughter. Her parents, she said, led long, full lives. Her mother died at 88, her father at 91. Talking about them, she said, keeps memories alive.
In that spirit, Wilson and her sisters made their annual gift to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund to honor their parents’ legacy.
“We are so proud of our parents and the happy childhood and adult memories that they gave to us,” they wrote. “We hope our gift will result in the same for another loving family, perhaps with three young daughters.”
The Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund provides certificates redeemable at participating local retailers to eligible families who can use them to buy holiday gifts through Dec. 31. Named after a former business manager at the Gazette, the fund began in 1933 to help families in need during the Depression. Today, the fund distributes vouchers valued at $40 to families for each child from age 1 to 14.
Raising ‘the girls’
Wilson talked in the living room of the house she shares with her husband, Gary. The couple’s home, part of which they operate as a bed and breakfast, sparkled with Christmas lights and decorations.
“They were great parents,” she said, though she’s quick to add that things weren’t always “hunky-dory.” There were, after all, three girls to usher through those teenage years. But her parents, she said, navigated those challenges in a welcoming, non-judgmental way and raised their daughters to be self-confident and strong.
Her father lived with the Wilsons for the last seven months of his life. He resisted at first, Wilson said. Why would you want an old man moving in with you, he’d asked. Because you’re my old man, she’d told him.
The arrangement worked. Her father loved being able to sit and enjoy the view of open fields in the back of the house, she said. And she enjoyed serving him his cocktail — a martini, one olive — every afternoon.
“He was fabulous — a happy, cheerful man right up until the end,” she said.
After his wife’s death in 2008, Jerry Custeau went to her grave in Spring Grove Cemetery in Florence every day.
“I’m going to go see your mother,” he would say, and once there, he’d bring Dorothy up to date on family news.
When her father could no longer drive, Wilson drove him to the cemetery several times a week. He’d look out the window and tip his hat — a Scottish cap with a pompom — toward his wife’s grave.
“I think it brought him a lot of comfort,” Wilson said.
The couple met in Lowell, where both grew up, and moved to this area when Jerry Custeau was hired by the Prophylactic Brush Co. — Pro Brush, as it was universally called — in Florence, first as an accountant and then as a salesman.
Nancy Custeau, born at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in 1953, remembers Northampton as a great place to grow up. On weekends, you could take a bus from Florence into downtown Northampton for a matinee at the Calvin Theater. “That was a real special treat,” she said. There were shopping excursions with her mother to McCallum’s department store, now Thornes Marketplace, perhaps with a stop at the Woolworth’s lunch counter for an ice cream soda.
On Thanksgiving, the family went to Lowell to visit relatives. On the return trip, Wilson said, her father always made it a point to drive through downtown Northampton so the girls could get their first glimpse of the holiday lights.
Winter brought ice skating and sledding on Hospital Hill, treks into the woods to look for animal tracks with their father, and steaming mugs of hot chocolate that her mother would set out for them when they got back home.
At Christmastime, Wilson and her sisters always went to the children’s party that Pro Brush gave at John M. Greene Hall at Smith College.
Choosing a tree involved a family outing to the center of Florence where Wilson remembers her father sometimes grumbling about the sky-high, $5 per tree price tags: “Isn’t that terrible?” he’d ask.
Dorothy Custeau threw herself into decorating the house. She’d start one morning after the girls had left for school and, by the time they got home, the place would be transformed with garlands, lights and decorations.
“It was magical,” Wilson said.
Her parents never exchanged presents, she said. On Christmas morning, her father, still in his bathrobe, always sat in a straight-back chair in the living room, content to watch the girls enjoy theirs.
This year, knowing their parents’ absence will feel a little raw, the sisters are doing things a bit differently. Instead of the “proverbial turkey dinner,” Wilson, whose daughter, Brooke, 31, and son Ross, 30, will be home, plans to host a family brunch. Later on, they’ll gather for a buffet dinner at Cynthia Custeau’s in South Deerfield.
Sometime that day, they’ll make a trip to the cemetery. In keeping with the season, Wilson brought some greens to the graves Friday afternoon. She also set up a small light nearby programmed to come on at 4 o’clock. There’s something nice about seeing it there, she said, when day turns to dusk.
Eligible families must live in any Hampshire County community except Ware, or in the southern Franklin County towns of Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately, Shutesbury and Leverett.
Berkshire Children and Families, located at 220 Russell St., Hadley, verifies the income eligibility of families. Most families who receive assistance are referred by social service agencies. The Gazette covers all costs of the Toy Fund.
The following stores are participating this year: A2Z Science and Learning Store, Northampton; Deals & Steals, Northampton; Faces, Northampton; F.J. Rogers, Florence; JCPenney, Hadley; Mountain Goat, Northampton; The Toy Box, Amherst; Wilson’s Department Store, Greenfield, and Target, Hadley.
Donations to the Toy Fund may be dropped off at or mailed to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 115 Conz St., Northampton, 01060 or Gazette offices at 67 Main St., Easthampton, or 9 East Pleasant Street, Amherst.
Checks should be made payable to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund. To donate to the Toy Fund online, visit toyfund.gazettenet.com.