100-Year-Old Storyteller: Interview With Helen Geiszler—Part 3

100-Year-Old Storyteller: Interview With Helen Geiszler—Part 3

In my fictitious memoir, The Crab Hollow Chronicles, I address both the blessings and the drawbacks of membership in a large family.  Like the main character, Karen Schmidt, I was a child in a family of seven in the early 1960’s.  Although not consumed with longing, I sometimes found it challenging to watch my neighborhood friends play with toys that I knew I would never find under my tree on Christmas morning.  My parents could not afford to lavish expensive presents on each of  their five children.

Oh, I always got a pile of gifts that pleased me greatly, but I never expected a shiny new Schwinn Fair Lady to be parked in the living room with my name attached to a giant bow.  I would have to be satisfied with another year of my hand-me-down 22 inch bike.  Nor would I find Chatty Kathy, who spoke eleven phrases when you pulled her ring or Tiny Tears, who cried “real” tears after you fed her a bottle of water.  It was useless to even ask for a Barbie Dream House; I didn’t even own a Barbie.  


But I was proud to be Mother to Betsy Wetsy, one of the first drink and wet dolls, who was not quite so costly as the others, and my grandparents gave me Gloria, a large doll that didn’t talk, cry real tears, or dance the jig, but whom I loved dearly, just as much as Linus loves his blue blanket.

In spite of my perceived hardships as a child, the fond memories of friends, neighbors, and family were what inspired me to write The Crab Hollow Chronicles.  American journalist Charles Kuralt once said, “The love of family and the admiration of friends is much more important than wealth and privilege.”


Helen Geiszler teaches that lesson well . . . and without even trying. This is Part 3 of my interview with 100-year-old Helen, who grew up in a poor family in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania—poor, that is, in material trappings.


1920's Top

1920’s Tin Litho Top for sale on E-bay by inkydynk

In Parts 1 and 2, Helen and I discussed her childhood and toys of the 1910’s and 1920’s.  Now I’m going to spin the top in a different direction by drawing on a few of Helen’s poignant tales, which demonstrate that a houseful of toys, though a blissful proposition for kids of any decade, is not necessarily a prerequisite for a happy childhood.


In Part 1, Helen mentioned that she and her brothers got “one gift at Christmas, and that was it.”  And yet she never complained; nothing more was expected.  Did this make for a bleak Christmas?  Absolutely not.  Although Christmas at the Geiszler house was not a lallapalooza event like it is in most homes today, it was still a special time of year for Helen.


 “The night before Christmas, the Sunday school always had their Christmas entertainment, so we would all go to church—the kids would go.  We had to go to Calvary Presbyterian Church on Swissvale Avenue because there was no Lutheran Church around at all.  And we’d get a half pound box of chocolate candy, which was a real treat, and  we would be so proud to come home with that box of candy.  And we’d give everybody a piece of candy.  It was something.”


I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many kids, disadvantaged or privileged, who would share a treasured item with friends or family members without prodding.  Kudos to Helen and her brothers.  And kudos to her parents for raising them to be responsible and  compassionate towards others, which you will continue to see as you read Helen’s stories.


Helen continued with a short description of the Geiszlers’ Christmas traditions.  “We never had stockings.”  That was not surprising since they did not have a fireplace in their “shack,” as she called her modest home.  “We had a Christmas tree, but that Christmas tree we never saw till Christmas morning.  My parents would stay up all night.  In that old house, they had real candles on the tree, and I don’t know what ever kept the house from burning down.”


“At Christmas time we always looked forward to my mom—she always made a big pan of chocolate fudge.  And she always made stuffed dates.   She would stuff them with the chocolate fudge and then put part of an English walnut on them and then roll them in sugar, and, oh Lord, they were delicious.”


I asked Helen what other toys she had received at Christmas besides her favorite—the infant doll.  She hesitated and couldn’t recall.  “I can’t remember that we made much of a fuss.  We knew we weren’t going to get very much.”


Just like the Who’s down in Whoville, the Geiszlers did not need stockings, ribbons, or tags; they didn’t need packages, boxes, or bags in order to sing “Fah Who Foraze” in the town square on Christmas morning.


Girls, you can relate to this next revelation by Helen.  Although toys for her were scarce but always welcome, there was something Helen was just as happy to receive.  “One thing I loved when I was tiny was shoes.  My mother, God bless her, would take me downtown to this one store, and I’d always pick out a pair of shoes because I loved shoes. I often wonder how she afforded them because I know they had to be expensive.  But they were always real pretty.”  Helen was the only girl in the family, so I surmised that splurging on shoes was as close as her mother could get to spoiling Helen, her only daughter.


little girl circa 1917



Here is young Helen all dressed up, wearing buckle shoes that her mother most likely pinched pennies to acquire.




Here is a gem of a story worth telling.  For years during her childhood, Helen spent the weekends with her grandmother. “Well, heh, heh.  It took me till I was about eleven years old to find out why I went to my grandmother’s every weekend.  I was carted off to my grandmother’s.”


 Let’s see if you can use your imagination to figure out why.  You may remember that the Geiszler “shack” was composed of three rooms—a living room, kitchen, and bedroom.  So, what were the sleeping accommodations for a family of six?


“[There was] my mother and dad’s bedroom, which I had a single bed in.  The living room had an open-up davenport that the three boys slept in.  That was how we slept.  It took me till I was eleven years old.  I used to think ‘Gee, my grandmother and aunts must really like me.'”


I laughed.  “They were trying to get rid of you, huh?”


With a grin, Helen answered, “It wasn’t because my grandmother loved me . . . although she did.  We’d go up the street during the day sometimes to Wood Street in Wilkinsburg to Kolb’s.  They called it a department store—very small.  She was looking at something.  I don’t know what she went in there to buy that day, but she needed to see if they had it.  And while she was looking, I’m over at the toys, and they had a little doll.  Oh, it was only about that big.”  She placed her hands about six inches apart.


“It was made out of cloth.  It was the cutest thing, of course, and it took my eye.  I picked it up and was looking at it and everything, and she comes over, and she says, ‘Do you like that?'” At that point in the story, as we sat in the booth at Eat ‘n Park, tears welled in Helen’s eyes.  She struggled to complete her sentence.


“And I said, ‘Oh, it’s cute.’  And I laid it down because we were always told don’t ask people for anything, you know?  People don’t have money for stuff like that. I never thought of asking.  And she takes it over to the counter.  It was a dollar; I remember that.  And she bought it for me. I had that thing for years.  Everyone loved her [my grandmother].”  (And not just because she always had candy in her buffet drawer.)


“Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do.  Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.”—Alex Haley, American writer


Obviously, there were some perks to being shipped out of the house every weekend— as well as some cherished memories to share ninety years later with lunchmates at a restaurant three miles down the road.
Helen & Roy on July 4, 1922



Here is 7-year-old Helen and her little brother Roy standing in front of their grandparents’  house on July 4, 1922.  Check out the hair bow!





But there is more to the weekend sagas.  Also living with Helen’s grandparents was her Aunt Marie.  “My aunt never married.  She would take me to Pittsburgh every Saturday, buy me lunch, which was a real treat in those days, believe me, and we’d go to at least one movie.  Then it was the Penn [now Heinz Hall], and the other one was the Stanley [now the Benedum].”
Loew's Penn Theater in Pittsburgh, PA in 1928   Inside Loew's Penn Theater—1920's Wilkinsburg, PA





        Loew’s Penn Theater, Pittsburgh, PA        1928
       Unchanged photo by CharmaineZoe (left)       License
                                                          Unchanged photo by CharmaineZoe (right)


  Stanley Theater, Pittsburgh, PA—1920's



Stanley Theater, Pittsburgh, PA




“And sometimes we’d go to two movies.  We’d go Saturday morning.  For twenty-five cents, you’d see a cartoon, the news, the feature, and you’d either have an organ recital or you’d have the symphony  orchestra.”

I was amazed.  “Wow!  You got your quarter’s worth.”

Helen smiled wistfully.  “And that was really something.”

It surely was for a young girl in Wilkinsburg who had few toys to call her own but was blessed with an extended family that she was proud to call her own.  Which reaffirms the premise that, whether 1914 or 1964, or even 2014, whether toys or no toys, a loving family life is the key to a happy childhood—a childhood that one can look back on with affection even 100 years  later.

“The simplest toy, one which even the youngest child can operate, is called a grandparent.” —Sam Levenson, American humorist and writer

Read more on toys of the 1920’s at the People History website.  Did you have a favorite toy that was all the more special because it was a gift from Grandma and Grandpa?

Out of respect for their privacy, I have changed the names of those mentioned during the interview.

The fourth installment of my interview with Helen addresses the toys of her preteen years circa 1925 and 1926, and it chronicles her teenage years, which were assailed by the Great Depression.

For more background and insight into Helen’s childhood years, backtrack to Part 1 and Part 2 or move forward to Part 4.


Karen Gennari is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven. The paperback and e-book can be purchased online at eLectio Publishing, Amazon, or Barnesandnoble.com.