Murky Waters Run Deep in the Reservoir of Memory

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Tuesday December 23, 2008 - 10:23:00 AM

We were something like a family for five years, 1926-1931. In a memory-snapshot of the three of us standing at the foot of my father’s little bed in his little room, in front of the closet that was so small the hangers hung flat against the wall on hooks. I have trailed my parents in there and am observing. They are arguing. He takes down a gray cardboard carton, and heaves it onto the foot of the bed. The throw causes it to bounce, and the lid comes off. Inside is a new doll, Betty, a Christmas gift and the second of my three dolls.  

Dotty Dimple, whose eyes opened and shut, was my first love. I played with Betty, but remained loyal to Dotty Dimple with the blinking eyes. Marie arrived later, a French doll with curly hair. The government provided my father a Pullman lower berth when he traveled. A French woman who was ill occupied the upper berth, and he generously offered to exchange berths. They chatted about me, and she gave him Marie.  

My father took charge of my before-dinner wash, wrapping my hands in his big ones around a towel. Later my grandfather and my uncle might drop by for an evening of man-talk in the smoke-filled living room. Conversation couldn’t have been too raunchy. I played in their midst on the carpeted floor. A tree stood in front of the fireplace, and there was a tradition of gifts that included “Florida Water,” more or less the same elixir that Scarlet O’Hara swigs down when Captain Butlah hoves into view.  

I had two “aunts” who were not relatives, dating back to when, as young women, my mother and her sister and Aunt Nellie were pre-World War I shop girls. Helen “Nellie” Apel was from their church and neighborhood, waiting to get married. Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop pumps her up somewhat when he writes in his autobiography, “My mother, Helen Apel, grew up in a large Brooklyn family. … Well read and intelligent, she entered the work force in a secretarial/managerial capacity.” As mass transit lines pushed suburban development farther into Brooklyn, many Park Slope residents moved on and up, from renting row houses to owning freestanding homes with yards, farther out. Aunt Nellie, husband and son moved to a frame house with a porch in Flatbush and enrolled their son in private school. Married to a banker and with lots of time and taste, she always produced delightful Christmas presents. In my first photo, taken in 1926, I am wearing a gold bracelet, another charming gift from Aunt Nellie.  

Now it’s 1932-1935, the height of the Depression. We are renting on a one-block, dank, dead-end street in Stamford, Connecticut. The Rippowam River rushes by or, depending on the season, gurgles its way to Long Island Sound. I have been placed in a first grade presided over by a holier-than-thou type who punishes kids by making them crouch under her desk. The school principal throws a party in his house up on Hubbard Heights for the winners of a competition to sell the most Christmas Seals. It’s clear to me that the party-goers have unloaded those stamps on relatives. I am 6 or 7 years old, a believer in a modified Santa Claus who enters at night to place an orange and some unshelled nuts in the bottom of my mother’s stocking. His representative in a Santa costume is an OK guy at the C O Miller department store. My mother chats with a sales clerk who is blowing her nose and wiping her eyes. She lives on our block, a few houses down. Her son, my age, has recently died of “sleeping sickness.” I don’t let on that I stood in front of their house and watched as he was removed in a straw container with a lid. The following year I have pre-penicillin pneumonia. A crowd gathers to watch as I am removed to the pie wagon by two police officers who have taken over and are transporting semi-conscious me to the hospital.  

Rockefeller Center Christmas in 1939 means two things: the tree and the Radio City Music Hall show. People wait in the cold for hours to get inside—corps de ballet, fabulous organ music, the Rockettes and the O Holy Night pageant, plus a motion picture opening. It’s Balalaika, 100 percent fantasy. Nelson Eddy plays Peter Karagin, a singing Russian prince disguised as a worker who falls for a café singer secretly involved in revolutionary activities. Karagin sees Lydia Marakova (Hungarian Ilona Massey, billed as “the new Dietrich”) in St. Petersburg’s Cafe Balalaika. All the St. Pete gang turn up later at the Parisian Balalaika Night Club—one is a doorman, another the proprietor, and Karagin the wine steward.  

It was my good fortune to have middle-aged, sandy gray-haired Miss Mabel Skinner for three years of Freeport High School Spanish and a year of homeroom. Two Spanish prizes were awarded at the end of the school year, one announced in assembly in May, and the other among Commencement program awards in June 1944. When my name wasn’t called in assembly, she was so concerned for my feelings that she hinted about the still-to-come Commencement program! But Mabel Skinner introduced me to more than Spanish. . .  

I remember it this way: During Christmas vacation, she takes two other students and myself to “the city.” The Belmont movie theater, now long-gone, is located in the Times Square area, admission 30 cents until noon. Miss Skinner is wearing her black Persian lamb coat and Mexican silver jewelry. We see, without subtitles, Un Ave Sin Nido (A Bird Without a Nest) in weepy black-and-white. At the end of the day, she invites us to have dinner with her at a nearby eatery. We ingrates fail to realize that she is lonely and not eager to return to her apartment. She orders steaks and ice cream sundaes for everyone, and she eats slowly. The steak comes with French fries and pickled beets. I have never had any of these delectables before, and I discover that I like them!  


This essay is extracted, in part, from Wheeler’s book The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually…