Helen Papke – April 10th, 2009

GEDC0132A couple of weeks ago, I drove a short distance up the Philo-Greenwood Road west of Hwy 128 and after passing the Hendy Woods turn-off I took a right and soon arrived at a complex of buildings that is known as ‘Cheesecake’. This is where I met with Helen Papke. We grabbed a couple of glasses of water and headed across the complex before sitting down to talk in the 2nd floor library – a beautifully  situated room, looking out at the tall redwood groves.

Helen was born in 1929 in Stockton, California, the older of two children (younger brother John lives in Folsom), to a mother of English descent, probably, and a father, surname Gramont. whose parents had moved to the U.S. from France when he was a small child. He grew up speaking French and as a boy delivered the French-language paper to the large French community that inhabited San Francisco in the early 1900’s. Her father worked for Standard Oil, later Chevron, whilst her mother was a homemaker who came from many generations skilled in home handicrafts such as sewing, crocheting, knitting, cooking, baking, etc. “My mother’s last name was Carrow – English I think, and she was related in some way to President Zachary Taylor (the 12th President 1849- 1850)…I had a very religious upbringing. My father was a Catholic but my mother was into various religions at different times – Baptists, Episcopalians, and other ‘voodoo religions’ as my father called them. We went to church with her on most Sundays – whichever church she was into was where we kids were at. They were both devout. I remember on one occasion when my father was sick the Priest came round and sat with him. Then he asked my father for some money! My father told my mother to write the church a check…When I eventually announced I was no longer going to church it was heartbreaking for each of them. I must have reacted strongly to all of this because one of the worst things my own kids could ever say to me now would be that they had found religion.”

Her father was a Credit Manager and was moved around to various locations by Standard Oil so that during her younger years Helen went to many different schools in a variety of California cities, including Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and at one point Phoenix, Arizona. Her strengths at school were reading and writing and so following graduation from Sacramento High in 1948 and the family’s move to southern California, she began her college career at U.C.L.A. where she studied English Literature. “However, my father, who was very strict and traditional, insisted that I should also study something useful for when I graduated so I had a minor in education and this eventually led to me getting a teaching credential along with my literature degree.” Helen became interested in politics while at college and at that time the Communist Party was very active at U.C.L.A. However, whilst she had been questioning her religious beliefs for a couple of years at that time, and was certainly s interested in some of the communist doctrines – “I liked the idea of being master of my own fate” – she never actually attended any meetings. “Fortunately I was only interested from afar because when I graduated in 1952 and applied for a teaching job I had to sign a ‘loyalty oath’ in order to get a job. That oath made it clear that I would not have been able to teach if I had gone to any communist meetings. It was the early days of the Cold War and that sort of affiliation was really frowned upon.”

In the1952 election, Helen voted for the first time and chose the Democrat candidate, Adlai Stevenson. “I adored him – he was a great statesman.” He lost to Eisenhower that year and again in 1956 but by 1960 the Kennedy’s had made their way to the front of the political stage and she thought they were great. ‘My favorite was Robert – he was very special. Even though I supported the unions I did not like the way the Teamsters were being run by Jimmy Hoffa and I thought Robert Kennedy was great in his pursuit of Hoffa, who seemed to run the union like some sort of Mafia organization.”

Upon graduation Helen took a teaching job in Palos Verdes working with kindergarten and 1st graders. “I loved it. Working with children was perfect for me. Despite some of my beliefs, I was old-fashioned in lots of ways. I was good at, and enjoyed, cooking, decorating, sewing and, like many other girls of my age at that time, I just thought of my career as something to do before I got married and had children. I had wanted to be an attorney at one point in school but my father had said, ‘You’d be taking the college place of a man who needs to practice law to support and raise his family’. He had also said to my mother, ‘no wife of mine will ever work’ – I guess anything she did in the home was not work according to him?”

Helen explained that he father was a very bad alcoholic and how she feels this has affected her ever since. “Being in such a household determines how you look at the world for the rest of your life. There was one set of rules when he was sober and another when he was drunk. Even to this day I sometimes think that somewhere everyone knows the rules and I still don’t. My grandmother lived with us and she and my mother would prepare wonderful meals. We’d all sit down together for dinner and it would be a nice evening until something would suddenly change. You never knew what would start it. You were waiting to see who was going to feel the brunt of the abuse and hope it wasn’t you…He stopped drinking when I was sixteen but remained what they call a ‘dry drunk’ and the mood swings were just the same; you still did not know what was coming next. He and his brother, also an alcoholic, grew up in San Francisco where at that time if you had the money they would serve you some alcohol even if you were just a kid – he started drinking when he was six years old”…

“It took for ever but by the time he was in his eighties he had become the sweetest thing in the world. I have great feelings towards him in his later years when he was so lovely and had developed a sense of humor. I like to drink a couple of glasses of wine most evenings but sometimes I think that is too much – I am no doubt fine but my memories and experiences lead me to think that way occasionally.”

For a couple of years Helen thoroughly enjoyed her teaching job and was even being referred to as the clichéd “old maid school teacher’ because she had not married immediately after leaving college. “”Even though you might be only twenty-two, being a teacher in those days meant you were held in high esteem. You also had to adhere to high standards of social behavior – no bars, no frivolous behavior.” Eventually, in 1954, when she was twenty-five Helen did get married and started a family. “We had three wonderful children – our eldest daughter Wynne, Karl, and youngest girl Alexandra. The marriage was not a good one although we were together for nine years – he was a total bastard.”

“For those years I was a housewife and mother – like millions of others. Then we got divorced in 1963, which was very unusual in those days.  I returned to teaching near to where we lived in Manhattan Beach. There weren’t any other divorced teachers and I didn’t know anyone else who was a single parent. I was determined to never get married again – I couldn’t even conceive of it. Plus I couldn’t imagine anyone who would marry a mother of three kids, all under eight…I remember attending a P.T.A. meeting at the school at which the local police chief was giving a talk about drug use and he said that all the kids who got into trouble were from single parent homes – that really hurt and was a low point in my life. I’ve learnt since that the differences between the police and us are quite enormous on many issues…Then I met Dave – and he wanted to be part of a big family! He had a son, Charles, and we got married in 1968 and the six of us became a family. He has been a great partner and we have been very, very happy together.”

It was while the children were all still quite young that Helen began to meet other young mothers and make friendships that were to last for the rest of her life. These women were Gail Wakeman, Louise Browning, Jill Myers, and Sophie Otis and, together with some of their husbands, they eventually would move to Cheesecake – forming the unique community that has lived together in the Valley for the past twenty-five years…

“One of the fads of the late sixties was women’s groups and we formed one, meeting once a week. It was a social group in which you could share your thoughts and feelings and be accepted and not be judged. As some marriages fell apart, and the individuals went through various stressful times, we helped each other through. It became very important to each of us. Of course, each of us had hot tubs –many people did in southern California – and that certainly helped – nearly every evening we ended up in the tub!”

“In the earlier days we would vacation together and our kids, and now our grandkids too, all got to know each other well. I think we knew that we’d end up all together. Dave and Dick Browning, (Louise’s husband) were with us from the beginning; Daniel (Jill’s partner) came later…I believe we certainly helped Dick when Louise passed away but along with talking to each other we certainly believe in getting professional psychological help if necessary. Sophie is a psychologist and has been very helpful to us – she certainly has helped me see things more clearly at times.”

During the years of raising her kids, Helen stopped teaching and stayed at home where she began sewing in earnest, making clothes, banners, and 3-D wall-hangings. Then, when the kids went to college, she started a business in this field. Initially she would sell at street fairs then a merchant wanted some of her stuff in his store and soon she had an agent and her products were soon being sold all over the country. “I worked my ass off in those years!”

In the early eighties, one of the women, Sophie Otis, had divorced and moved up to Marin County. Helen’s daughter Alexandra had graduated high school and wanted to take a break before going to college so she moved to northern California with Sophie. The rest of their friends would visit them quite often, for holidays in particular. Then Jill met and married Daniel who lived in Palo Alto and so she was up this way too. “We liked the idea of functioning like one big family and therefore needed a place for all of us to be together. Sophie had a contact at Wellspring here in the Valley and the women and our daughters came up and stayed there in teepees. That was our first time in the Valley, nearly thirty years ago”

“We loved it here but Dave and I had made a decision to go to the U.K. with his company – he was an engineer with MacDonald-Douglass, so we went over there and lived in Yorkshire for two-and-a-half years. We had a wonderful time but it was not easy to make close friends – you know how the English are. Anyway, I did get to know all the shopkeepers in our village and I took a job for a time at a little cheese shop. We were able to travel quite often and spent time in France, Italy and Germany…However, my parents were aging and so we returned to the States to take care of them. Dave continued to return to work in Europe for a few weeks at a time and I’d visit him when I could. On one occasion I could not get away and missed him so much that I went out and got a tattoo of his name, just ‘Dave’, on my butt! I told some of our neighbors and one morning in bed, just after his return, he said, ‘You’ve got a bruise on your butt’. I said look a little closer and when he saw what it was he laughed so loudly the neighbors could hear him and knew what had happened! Our children just threw up their hands when they found out – the same reaction they had when I got my nose pierced. That’s when they really ‘gave up.’ I suppose in some ways they are quite ‘conservative’ compared to us; for example the clothes I make are too far out for them.”

“On that note, I remember one Mother’s Day when I had not heard from the kids at all and it got to evening and so I was pissed. Dave and I went out and bought a BMW Convertible – not the Station Wagon they were expecting us to get. In this family you might say that the ‘wild ones’ are the parents.”

In the mid-eighties, Sophie called to say she had found the perfect property a couple of miles along the Philo-Greenwood Road. They had meetings with an architect to design a house with separate living quarters for each partnership and Daniel became the project manager. Over the next year or so, the group would get together more frequently up here, first for weekends, then for whole summers, until they eventually all moved here to live. “I had always loved the Valley since first coming here and I feel more at home here than anywhere in my life. I suppose I was something of an outcast in Manhattan Beach but here my peculiarities and those of others are appreciated. It is unusual because in some ways I can be even more creative – my sewing obviously – yet because I have made the commitment to the group and our community lifestyle I also have to go along with group decisions which may not always be mine. I wouldn’t change a thing though.”

“In the early days the meetings were not always smooth; people could sometimes leave them feeling misunderstood. However the process has changed and our commitment to each other now means problems will be solved and, whilst I have places on the property I can go to and be alone, the benefits of companionship, support, and hearing the opinions of others easily off-set any trade-off in terms of the occasional compromise on my behalf. Furthermore, the minor disputes, and efforts to resolve them, keep us vital and when our kids and grandkids see and hear about this I believe it’s really good for them. They have learned that this is not just Grandma’s house, it is a community and there is a need to be part of it. The more you open up to others the better person you can become.”

I asked Helen what she most liked about her time in the Valley. “Well apart from the obvious physical beauty, the people here have always been so giving and gracious. It’s a small place and in small places people talk and gossip travels quickly, but it is rarely very mean here. People here care for one another. The other day Jeanne Nickless said to me, ‘Yes, that’s what we do in the Valley – we take care of each other’.”

What is your opinion of the Wineries presence here? – “Well I think it is just part of the inevitable changes that happen. They have the right to be here although I do hope there is a limit put on their number at some point because I am concerned about the water shortages.”…KZYX & Z local public radio? – “It’s wonderful. I am a pretty regular listener and am very appreciative of the people who give their time.”…The School system? – The schools are important to me and this community seems to support the school a lot. The teachers are dedicated and I cannot imagine there are many schools where people are prepared to take a pay-cut to help offset some of the recently announced cutbacks from the government.”…The modernization of Anderson Valley? – “ I am not as distressed as some people are about this. I know the Valley is going to change – that’s what happens. I love this Valley and will accept the changes as being inevitable up to a point. I am lucky to live here so telling others they cannot live here doesn’t seem right.”…And whom would you vote for Mayor of the Valley if such a position were to be created? – “Oh that’s easy – Lauren (of Lauren’s Restaurant) – I really appreciate everything she does around here – she’s wonderful.”

These days Helen goes to see the grandchildren as often as she can – two live in southern California, one in Portland, and one is in Danville in the Bay Area. She continues with her sewing business and, when not actually making products of some sort, she uns a sewing circle once a week too. Other than that, she is in a book club once a month, takes Susan Gross’ bookmaking class once a week, exercises with Linda Boudoures’ class twice a week, and attends Kirsten’s yoga class – also twice a week…The Cheesecake group holds a weekly meeting to discuss all sorts of things, to clear the air if necessary, and to make decisions about their community. They eat together virtually every evening, taking turns to cook and clean-up, and before each meal they hold hands together, giving strength to one and all.

Before turning to the final section of the interview I asked Helen where the ‘Cheesecake’ name came from. “Well originally the property owners were called Cassata, which means cheese pie. In the community around here that became Cheesecake and in those days there were regular community gatherings up here around the hot tub and a version of volleyball, called Jungle Ball, was played. When we bought the property we kept the name even though I at first thought it was ‘so-Marin’. Anyway, most people in the Valley know of this place and where it is. We refer to ourselves as ‘Cakers’, and our grandchildren as Big and Little Cheeses depending on their age.”

To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Helen many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…

What is your favorite word or phrase? – “It would have to be ‘speaking of Vespers’. That is a brief phrase we use in our group if someone wants to change the subject. We have used it for years – yes, Vespers are the Italian motorbikes – don’t ask me why we use it.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “When somebody uses the word ‘should’ when they are talking, I don’t like it.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Without a doubt color would be number one for me.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “I guess doing the same old, same old, is very uninspiring.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “Hearing Johnnie Creek that runs though our property…Birds singing…And of course, the sounds of children.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – Big planes or helicopters overhead.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “I say ‘shit’ all the time…’Fuck’ quite often too – are you going to print that?”

What is your favorite hobby? – “You already know that one – sewing…And I do like cooking too.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A fine artist or a writer of some sort.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “A salesperson in a department store.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “ There have been many…I know what the most recent was – last week, taking my granddaughter around to check out colleges in Oregon that she may attend in the fall. I was so honored to be able to do that.”

What was the saddest? – “Perhaps Louise’s death a couple of years ago. That was very tough after forty years of wonderful friendship.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “Well I think I’m a bit different. I like that.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “ I told you so!”

Published in: on April 13, 2009 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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