Monday, October 5, 2009


Really. I promise to stop talking in a second so you can hear Helen's story, uninterrupted. But can I just slip this one thing in here? Somehow I really want to remember this about her. That day, she was wearing more bracelets than I could count, and with every movement, no matter how small, they made the world's subtlest, most unpretentious music.

OK. I am pressing play on the tape recorder now. Here's Helen.

That's refreshing. I mean, it's refreshing you want to listen to us. Some young people think that as older people, we've never lived. In a way. That we've never known how it was to, say, to really love someone. They think we just exist. That's all. It seems that way. But we've had a lot of experiences growing up.
What I wrote here. It's true. But it's like a story. I'm not done yet. The story got too long. I started writing about the most important, or what was it, the best day of my life, but I kind of went off on a tangent. But I can tell you about it and finish writing at home.

I must say the following experience was one of the happiest moments of my life. The birth of my first baby. But I have to go back quite a bit. My family consisted of my father, my mother, my sister and me. We grew up right here in South Philadelphia. My father was a construction worker, and one day his employer asked him, would he move to Lancaster, Pennsylvania? At first my father said, no, he'd rather not, because he didn't want to take Irene and me out of our schools. But then he talked it over to my mother, and she said, maybe we can try it out for two years, perhaps.

Well, Irene and I cried, because we didn't want to leave our school friends and our neighborhood friends. For the first time, we were moving out of Philadelphia. But when we got to Lancaster, we were happy to see... well, it was a suburban town, and we liked that. First week we were there, these Mennonite ladies rang our bell. If you are familiar with Mennonites. They welcomed us to the neighborhood and had baskets of fruits. They were nice. And then another lady rang our bell. She was from the black church that was there, and asked my father if we could attend Sunday school, and my father said yes.

There, of course, we met other other children, and I also met the fellow that I would eventually marry, although we were too young to know that then. It was his mother who rang the bell. I was really young. Eleven or twelve. I had no idea that the first time I went to Sunday school was when I would meet my husband. Absolutely no idea.

Anyway, Irene and I slowly came to enjoy - and so did my mother and father - we all enjoyed our stay for two years.Well, I neglected to say that my husband's father was the pastor of the church.

So we moved back to Philadelphia. Every so often, the church conference would be held here, in Philadelphia, and other parents from the church would visit my family. And of course, on and on, my husband and I saw each other, and finally we began to look at each other differently.

I graduated from high school. I had taken the academic course because I thought surely my father would let me go to college. He was a lovely father but somehow he didn't. So what I did was I went to what was called "evening school." I didn't continue the academic course. Instead I took the commercial course at evening school. Learning things like typing and shorthand. To make a long story short, that was my education. Then I went to work for the Board, and in the meantime, my husband would come down to visit. We would go downtown. He would take me out. We didn't get married right away, because as I said, we weren't serious for a while. I was twenty-one when we got married. So.

Every so often, as Helen speaks and pauses, the whole room rolls in unison into a big, full laughter. At this point on the recorded tape is the first time anyone really interjects. You can hear Hattie in the background: "Starry-eyed, still starry-eyed when she talks about him."

And um. So he volunteered for the Service. This was before the draft and everything. He had volunteered before we had become serious. And we was going to make a career of it. But then we got married and he began to change his mind.

He was stationed in Savannah, Georgia. I'll never forget that place. We went down to Georgia. I loved that place.I just loved it there.

Hattie in the background: "It was him. Didn't matter where you were." We all know Hattie is right. That's including Helen.

I got pregnant when I was there. So right away I came back to Philadelphia to the prenatal clinic. I was living with my parents while he was still stationed down there, and for a short time he went to Trinidad. When he came back, the Army had the point system. By having the baby, he had more than enough points, enough for him to get out. So that is what he did.

Now I want to tell you this. I gave birth to the baby at the hospital, and when my husband came to pick us up, he almost ran into a...
Here Helen laughs and can't stop...

He almost ran into a post. He was so nervous. He was driving my father's car. But we were okay. I had to tell you that.

And in the ensuing years, I had another little boy. I had wanted a little boy, so I got my wish. And I had wanted a little girl. I did not get my wish. But I got my Trevor, my second son. I love him so much. And then I had a little girl. They are all college graduates. My oldest son, he is a professor of mathematics, the one I conceived in Savannah. Mathematics at Dartmouth. My younger son, he was a Personnel Director for Wyeth Laboratories but I lost him five years ago... um...

Um...with colon cancer... that he had discovered... and um, right away - it was two months - right away he was gone. I still haven't gotten over it yet. I don't think I can ever get over it... And my daughter, she is a teacher here, in the public school system. Yeah, so.

Life is very strange, because, while my oldest son was teaching up in New Hampshire, they asked him, would he go - listen to this - to Savannah, Georgia for at least a year to set an example for the black children in that area. And he consented. Yeah! Life is weird.

He sent for me to come down there. And my landlady, she came to visit me there. It was weird, you know. It was strange he would be asked to teach there and stay for a year. I stayed for several months.
That is beautiful, just to picture the years go by and come right back full circle.

That's why whenever anyone mentions Savannah, I really flip. Inwardly, you know. And whenever anyone says they are from Georgia, I always say, do you know where Victory Drive is? Because that is where I stayed. Victory Drive. It was lined, lined with palm trees.
Hattie begins crying. Crying with a smile. Nancy asks her first question, "Do you have grandchildren?"

Yes, I do. My oldest son has five kids and my younger son had two. And the blessing I have is that my sons reared their children to be devoted to us. My family and I. Although they are all young adults now, with the exception of one, she is thirteen, they are so devoted to my daughter and I. They come and visit. And now two of them are married, and they are parents, and they bring the babies. My life is really, really full. With the exception of my son. The one that I lost. But I guess you can't have everything perfect all the time. But I do have a lot of happiness. All of my grandchildren have completed college and everything, except for the one who is thirteen - she is in middle school. I am blessed. And we go up to New Hampshire every summer. We can go more often. But you know, my daughter works. And sometimes we make an exception and go up at Christmas, but if we don't go up there, they come visit. It's nice.