Miss Helen's Sneakers

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
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Daddy married Miss Helen in 1954. I was almost eight years old. Their marriage was a surprise since I’d only met her once.

Our new stepmother had lived ten miles away in Homewood with her two sisters and brother-in-law. Their house was lovely, a three-story red brick in a nice neighborhood with sidewalks and shiny cobblestone streets. I had never experienced anything so pleasant as Daddy and Miss Helen’s wedding reception. The house was all lace, crochet doilies and frilly curtains. It was filled with people, some I knew from Rankin, but most were strangers. I still remember the smell of polished wood furniture and a sparkling crystal dish filled with pink and green flat mints. One table held a beautiful white wedding cake and another had all sorts of finger sandwiches on shiny silver platters. Homewood was definitely a step up from our smoked gray standalone three-story in Rankin.

My older brother, Henry, didn’t like Daddy’s new bride, but he didn’t like anyone as far as I could tell, except neighborhood girls and dogs. Arthur, my middle brother, showed little interest in our new stepmother, but I was absolutely delighted that a girl would be moving in with us.
Miss Helen looked much younger than Daddy, but acted like an older woman because she was very particular about things, her things. One thing was sure to me, she wasn’t much of a homemaker, and anything that she did know how to do, she didn’t want to do. Miss Helen didn’t even know how to cook cornbread! Thank God, Grandmother cooked for everybody.
Peculiar too. “Stop calling me Miss Helen,” she’d warn us when Daddy wasn’t around. “I’m a married woman, so call me Mother or Mrs.” Henry refused to call her anything. Arthur and I stood firm on “Miss Helen.” As I said, she was a bit particular, but she didn’t look peculiar except for her one fashion mistake. Miss Helen was a little taller and a little heavier than most women I knew. She wore nice clothes but always the same type, a front button print or checked dress, sometimes with a cardigan and sometimes with a little white collar. Her clothes and beauty preparations were neatly arranged in furniture with interesting sounding names: chifforobe, chest of and dresser drawers. In her absence, I felt it was my duty to inspect her top dresser drawer. Her makeup was intriguing but I was disappointed with all the printed lucky numbers sheets she kept. For chrissakes did everyone in Pittsburgh play the numbers?

Miss Helen was pretty enough. She had beautiful brown skin with a maroon tint on her cheeks. She wore ruby red lipstick and showed me how she blotted her lips three times for the color to set. Her hair was just lovely, thick and black. She wore a hairnet inside the house or covered her head with a scarf we called a babushka when outside. Her hair was somewhat of a curled pageboy style with a thick curled bang. I thought her skin was perfect and reached to touch her cheek once before she yelled, “Don’t touch my face! That’s how people get pimples!” Particular AND peculiar. Every night she put gobs of Pond’s cold cream on her face. Everything about her always smelled so good. Maybe it was that “My Sin” perfume by Lanvin on the top of her dresser. I would never touch that because of its name. Miss Helen was not a mean lady. Grandmother said she was the baby of her family and probably spoiled. And Daddy told her once, in my hearing, “Helen you’re not a bad looking woman.” I didn’t think that was a compliment, but obviously she did.
The only strange thing about my stepmother was her insistence on wearing white girl tennis shoes to and from work in downtown Pittsburgh. Only girls wore those tennis sneakers in school gym and boys wore high top Keds. No adults in Rankin or anywhere else wore sneakers when they were dressed up for work. She really liked those shoes. On one of my furtive forays into her belongings, I was shocked to find six pair of the exact same shoes in the bottom of her chiffarobe, all lined up neatly and sparkling white.

Rankin was a small township, seven miles from Pittsburgh, with two steel mills on the Monongahela River. Smokestacks actually shot out red smoke into the air regularly before environmental protection became a rule .Hence Miss Helen’s perennial babushka scarf.Most of the men, including my daddy, worked in the steel mills. Daddy was a wire drawer.

Miss Helen worked in a bookstore in downtown Pittsburgh and rode the #67 streetcar home in the evening. When she got home, she and Daddy laughed and listened to the radio in Daddy’s room, now their room.

When neighbors signified about her daughter-in-law’s shoes, Grandmother said “Helen’s just sensible when it comes to her feet, that’s all.” The neighbor kids couldn’t understand why a grown woman wore them every day. Tennis shoes were for schoolgirls. I never asked why she wore them because it made sense to me; living on Third Street in Rankin was living on the side of a mountain for chrissakes!

Riding the streetcar and tackling those hills looked seriously uncomfortable for women wearing even medium heeled shoes. Miss Helen had no problem sprinting to the streetcar stop or getting into the house out of the rain.
I don’t know why and through no fault of my own, Daddy and Miss Helen broke up in 1955. I wasn’t too sad because frankly she was not a lot of fun. She never fulfilled my expectations. We never once went shopping together. My favorite memory of Miss Helen is seeing her almost skip down the Third Street Hill at a fast pace, wearing a babushka and carrying a small bookbag with the name of her store on it. I admired her for insisting on wearing sneakers but was also embarrassed for the same reason. Nevertheless, I decided then and there to be like Miss Helen in one regard, to have the courage to stand my ground in whatever sensible white tennis shoes I choose.