Today is my middle of three younger sisters, Kara's, birthday, so many happy returns of the day and if anyone is able to have a happy day, it is she. As a child who was the firstborn of the second cohort of kids my Mom and Dad had, Kara was about as easy-going as the day is long (July vice January in case you were wondering; and there's a reason, Jill, why I mention January and when we get there on the calendar, I'll return to that thought).
She and Russ, her husband, have three young men of various ages but of similar disposition, making a home (and/or home base) for one another in the most central part of Central New Jersey and though I don't see them often (they have some of the best luck of anyone you'll ever know), they are a delight.
Before Kara was Stella (which is what Adam and Kara's sister, Jill, call her), she was Clarabelle (there is NO point in being the oldest child, with all the embarrassing memories of every other sibling, if those memories are not summoned at the most inappropriately appropriate moments such as birthday celebrations) and this story would be even better if I could remember more of it.
I always tell people 'we grew up in New Brunswick', which is true-except for the preposition. We actually grew up near New Brunswick in Franklin Township, on Bloomfield Avenue just off Easton Avenue and about eight minutes, by car (because you went by car or walked everywhere because the bus was sort of a joke, except the passengers were the punchline) from New Brunswick back before J & J reinvented the city in its image and likeness. For most of the late Fifties and all of the Sixties and Seventies, New Brunswick had Rutgers University and Johnson and Johnson.
Mom did the grocery shopping at the A & P and got prescriptions filled at the Kilmer Pharmacy in the Acme Market plaza (we never got groceries there) but all the kids' clothes came from PJ Arnold's in downtown New Brunswick and for shoes, she took everyone to Gluck Shoes on Hamilton Street (I think), where she could get Stride-Rite shoes (with the all important 'cookies' in the insoles for growing feet) for both Kara and Jill.
I usually had my brother, Adam, and Mom would have the Dynamic Duo. Lost in the mists of (my) memory is exactly how Kara got tagged with Clarabelle--Jill, nearly two years Kara's junior and from the moment of her birth one of the three most intense people in this hemisphere (she has moved up in the rankings as well as weight class in the ensuing years) was, from her earliest age, given to the dramatic gesture, so much so that Mom called her Sarah (Heartburn) an homage, of sorts, to a famous actress of my grandmother's era, Sarah Bernhardt.
Gluck's Shoes, actually all retail clothiers, haberdashers, foundation garment and other retailers were unlike anything we have today, with people who waited on you, bringing you the articles you described and helping you with them. The measurement of a child's foot was too important to be left to a self-service operator-and each young clerk, usually a man, carried a Brannock and swooped in the moment you sat down, measured both feet, scribbled down the numbers and performed some kind of mathematical maneuver, disappearing into the back and returning with boxes of shoes. And that was that.
This particular shopping trip my sisters were more than a bit restive, though the specific reasons now elude me, and Mom was verbally nudging Kara who would dawdle and daydream over each new pair of shoes. 'Clarabelle,' she'd say, 'let's make up your mind.-we don't have all day.' (even though we did).
Jill hated being rushed and would fold her arms in front of her and scrunch her face up and furrow her brow to signal her unhappiness at the unfairness of it all, eventually provoking Mom to decide what shoes she was getting. That, in turn, created more drama, until Mom would bring her up short with 'Sarah, keep going and there will be no new shoes.'' The three of them went through this every time they bought anything, anywhere. All of them knew how it would end, but the game had a life of its own and they went along for the ride.
This particular afternoon, the clerk, certainly eager to please, took to calling both Kara and Jill, Clarabelle and Sarah, because, I realized with a start, that's what he thought their names were as Mom never called them anything else. Since both of them were used to Mom's nicknames, they saw nothing amiss and Mom never even noticed. As he was ringing out the purchases, a register with the round buttons where you put in the exact amount and little vertical canoe paddles (that's how they looked to me) popped up in the glass box at the top of the National Cash Register, whose clanging bell made the sale official, he asked me what my name was.
I was way ahead of him-'Ralphie', I said. And your brother, he inquired. 'Ralphie, too' I offered, perhaps a little too quickly but to this day I think I got away with it. Frankly, Adam, I think that's where the seed was planted that led you to your college alma mater-and you are welcome.
Anyway, without missing a beat the clerk handed mom two Stride-Rite shoe bags and leaned over the counter to give both Clarabelle and Sara each a lollipop. Happy Birthday, kiddo. Don't take any wooden Stride Rites.