November, 2018

Helen Story’s Richmond

In the ‘50s, Helen Story was an enterprising young woman. For $20 she purchased a used Richmond Treadle Sewing Machine from church member, Winnie Gravitt. With that Richmond she kept her three daughters well dressed – and entertained.

We watched her change thread, fill the bobbin and sew in zippers with the speed of light. Watching the bobbin fill was mesmerizing. Helen slowed down when pulling a thread through a piece of hemmed cloth making a “pretty little ruffle.” She smiled as though surprised – every time. Not much she couldn’t do, but make button holes. With a stack of gingham and seersucker, she walked across Morgan Road to Aunt Sarah’s house. In a day or so Sarah returned the clothes with button holes. Good as store bought. It took a special feature for button hole-makers that the antiquated Richmond did not offer.

But what she had Helen perfected. Hours on end her feet powered that machine to a fine hum. We took turns sitting on the Richmond foot-petal, atop her feet and went for a ride, mindful not to grab the big wheel. A lesson learned the hard way.

My mother was an organizer labeling every article of clothing down to the white socks, pink thread for Patricia, always blue for me and yellow for Barbara. Just a few stitches of our favorite color and that article was assigned to rightful owner, making laundry day a breeze.

Diane and Patricia, halter-shorts by Helen Story

Waste not want not was her motto. Only one Simplicity Pattern purchased for her 3 daughters. She cautiously cut out the tissue paper pattern. Positioned it on material laid out on the kitchen table, careful to crowd the pieces in as much as possible. Cut, then took the pieces to the sewing machine. There we watched her every move. Serious she was. With the rider of the foot-petal determined and positioned on her feet, Helen started slowly, then as a powerful locomotive she gave it more steam, then take off time. That’s when she bit her lip as her big brown eyes focused on the foot-feed. Time for silence except for the Richmond whirl.

With the hum quiet, magically a halter top appeared. Hum a little more, the shorts appeared. Question. What color rick-rack? She listened to our in-put then made her decision. Sometimes we won, sometimes not. Helen had an eye for color but kept in mind our favorites. But first the owner of the new outfit had to be determined. That’s when she snapped her fingers to the tune of no-nonsense. Though she’s been deceased for 10 years, I can still hear it. We lined up in pecking order. Whoever the outfit fit – was the proud owner.

Diane, Barbara and Patricia Story

If the piece fit me – Diane – the middle girl, it was mine. Then she laid the used pattern piece on the remaining material on the kitchen table. She cut a couple inches wide for Patricia. Then she folded her paper pattern in a couple inches to cut smaller pieces for Barbara. If short on material, she worked it like a puzzle to get every inch. Back to the machine. Miraculously, the clothes fit. If not no problem. She had a handy dandy seam ripper and knew how to use it. Alterations no problem for Helen Story.

That is how the little girls of  Tom and Helen Story stayed well dressed for school and church. Yes, she made beautiful little dresses with petite embellishment. Nothing fancy. “Nice for my girls,” is what she wanted.

Thanksgiving of 2018, Helen Story much on my mind as I prepared her recipes. Then I read about disappearing treadle sewing machines by Southern Writer, Tom Poland. Mama got a little closer. I opened the put-away sewing machine, now used as a table in the guest room. With a damp cloth, I dusted the cabinet including that big wheel that bit my fingers. Looking at the foot-petal I realized how tiny we were then. I carefully put my hand in the well and grabbed hold of the cold iron machine hidden so many years. And there it was, Helen Story’s $20 innovative clothing store for her daughters, Patricia, Diane and Barbara. Thank you Mama; you made us look so “nice.”






June 1962

“Mother, Diane and I want to see Prince and the Pauper in downtown Atlanta, not around here in Tucker! How boring. We’re goin’ to Atlana!” 

“Gail, I will not drop you off on the streets of Atlanta – especially in pouring down rain. Forget it.”

“But there’s nothing to do around here.”

And on and on it went. Most young teens would’ve given up, but not Gail.

Mary and Hubert Humphrey did all to accommodate their only child. Mary almost died giving birth and it was touch and go with Gail. Mary was my mother’s cousin. Even Helen Story,thought the sun rose and set upon Gail Humphrey. If I was with the Humphreys all was well with the world according to Helen. And it was. Long story short. Mary and a girlfriend pulled up to the curb of the Plaza Theatre on Ponce de Leon to let Gail and me out. Gail opened the car door.

“Hold on girls! I just do not feel right about this!”

“Mother, please don’t embarrass me in front of Diane!”

“Gail, you are 13 years old! What will Helen Story say when she hears about this?”

Before I could speak (though I had no intentions of telling Helen anything) Gail said, “Helen supports the buddy system! Always stay together and look out for one another.”

Mary looked at me. I was on. “Mama does support the buddy system.”

Mary thought hard, reconsidering but became irritated as the wind blew rain into the car putting a damper on her new shampoo and set. Still, she stood her ground not allowing us out of the car.

“What kind of person would allow two 13 year olds out on Ponce alone in Atlanta? Gail, Hubert will not be happy about this! What if the movie is sold out and you’re stranded on the street?”

“Oh Mother, you’re so dramatic. Why not watch us go in? We’ll wave when we have the tickets. Go to lunch and then come back and wait on us – right here in this spot. We’ll be okay.”

“Well, that makes sense. I’ll watch. Don’t forget to wave! Or I will sit here until you come out!”

That’s the roughest I ever heard Mary speak to Gail. We ran to the outside ticket booth. Just before facing a woman selling tickets Gail said, “Let me do the talking.”

(Well okay, why not?) With a straight face – serious as a heart attack – Gail looked the woman in the eyes and said, “Two for Lolita.”

“You mean – Prince and the Pauper?”

“Two for Lolita,” Gail said without blinking an eye.

Visibly disturbed, the lady said, “Absolutely not! You must be 18 to see that movie or,” she smiled knowingly, “have permission from a parent.”

“Our mothers are in that car. See? They’re waiting to make sure you give us our tickets,” Gail said as she pointed out the car with two women anxiously looking on. “I hope Mother doesn’t have to get out and get her new hairdo ruined! She’ll be so mad.”

Gail and I waved at the two women in the car. They waved back motioning for us to hurry in. The lady disapprovingly handed over the tickets. We were given an odd look by the gatekeeper who pointed to the door with Lolita in big red letters above it.

Inside the theatre, Gail insisted on sitting in the middle of the room – in the wide open for all to see. I suggested sitting on the edge near the curtains. No. We sat centerfield. There two 13 year old girls learned the ways of the (sick) world. We reacted in different ways. I felt as though the long arm of Helen Story was about to grab me, whereupon I would face the worst of judgement. Still, I looked on. Gail saw this enlightenment as a comedy where her belly laugh was heard throughout the room filled with silent-stiff-necked adults.

June of 1962 will never be forgotten, nor lessons learned: (1) Beware of very friendly old men. (2) BSP – Buddy System Power

June 2018

My dear childhood friend, Gail Humphrey, passed away in June 2018. Aggressive brain tumor. She is survived by two sons and too many friends to count. She will always be remembered for her sense of humor, gift of gab and full embracement of life. No doubt she entered the Pearly Gates at record speed, entertaining all.

Girlfriend, you are missed.

Atlanta History Note:

Plaza Theatre on 1049 Ponce de Leon Avenue is an Atlanta landmark with the longest operating history. Opened December 23, 1939, still serving the Druid Hills, Virginia Highlands and Poncey Highland neighborhood. Architect was George Harwell Bond.