Memories of Aberdeen
By Elaine (Matson) Reshke
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Perhaps I should go back a bit further to the day I was born. Our farm was near a very small town in eastern Idaho--Aberdeen. Mom was baking bread in the kitchen when Doctor McKinnon stopped by. He knocked on the front door, then entered without waiting for her to answer. “Just thought I’d stop by and see how you’re doing. I’m making rounds.” After examining her, he said, “Young lady, you’re ready to deliver. Come on, we’re going to the hospital.”
“Hospital! No, sir, I’ll deliver right here in my own bedroom. I’ve had three that way and there’s no need to be any different with this one!”
Well, Doctor McKinnon won the argument and a few hours later, on May 27, 1931 to be exact, I was born in the American Falls hospital. Little did I know at the time that my life would be filled with trials and tribulations interspersed with periods of happiness and success. But then, that’s why I chose to come to this earth: to see if I could survive and endure to the end. I’m sixty-seven now and I’m still enduring.
Life was good when I was a child. The family had made it through the Great Depression and Dad had sold the farm by the time I was four. “If I’m not going to get any boys to help with the chores, we’ll move into town and go into business where we can use the girls.” So we did. Dad bought an old, boarded-up opera house--the kind you see in TV turn-of-the-century westerns--and my folks worked hard to convert it into a “picture show” and ice cream and hamburger shop. They called it the “Star Theater” and
“Matson’s Sweet Shop.” Aberdeen had no entertainment for young-uns and it went over like hot cakes on a cold morning. No longer did the townsfolk have to make the long trip to American Falls, a tiresome ten miles away in an old 30’s Ford, or to “Pokey,” (short for Pocatello) to see a movie or go to a dance.
My three older sisters were immediately put to work flipping hamburger patties or ushering latecomers down a dark aisle of the theater. By the time I was five, I was in charge of the bottom shelf of the candy counter in the Sweet Shop. That’s where the penny candy lay and I had been taught how to make change from a nickel. I learned patience there, I think, because it would often take five or ten minutes for a child to decide which piece of candy to buy. Sometimes they would choose two pieces and I would carefully count out three pennies in change.
I must not forget Bowser, our gray tabby. We named him Friskie when he came
to us as a kitten, but Dad had a tendency to give a name of his choosing to almost anybody --I was called Sqwack when I was a baby--and Friskie was soon known as Bowser by everyone. He would lie on a stack of magazines or on the back seat of a booth in the Sweet Shop and not move until he heard the refrigerator door open. Like magic he would be there to devour a lump of raw hamburger that would be dropped to the floor, and on rare occasions he would get a saucer of milk. But he was also a great mouser. He grew into a fat cat that everyone loved. No one ever complained that he was allowed into an eating facility, and they often asked for him if he wasn’t around.
By the time I was six and in the first grade--there was no kindergarten then--I was feeling pretty sure of myself. My best friend was Mary Ann. She had short, flaming red hair and we were inseparable. We would go to Primary together and during Sunday School opening exercises, we would sit together. Our mothers would make us identical dresses and, although we didn’t look at all alike, we were almost like twins. But Mary Ann and I were competitive, too. We both loved art--and were good at it--and spelling. We often tried to outdo each other and win over the first seat in the classroom. That’s where “the best in the class” could sit for the week. It seems we took turns at that seat and I don’t recall ever feeling jealous or angry when I lost out to her. I’d just try harder next time.
Aberdeen can be described in a few sentences. It was a farming community with population of about fifteen hundred that never changed over the years. “Downtown” consisted of Main Street three blocks long with a few stores and a couple of side streets. Half the people lived in homes that surrounded the downtown area and many of them still live in those same homes today. The other half lived on farms. Our business was a short block off Main on one of the side streets. We lived above in an apartment.
One of the great joys of my life during that time was a bowl of real, homemade soup at Scott’s restaurant. The family ate in the Sweet Shop Monday through Saturday and we grew up on hamburgers, milk shakes and canned soup. On Sundays Mom would spend the early morning upstairs in our apartment preparing a wonderful meal that we would devour after Sunday School. She was a good cook, but on the other days of the week, she would often give me a dime from the cash register and say, “Go over to Scott’s and get a bowl of soup.” I’ll never forget the aroma of that restaurant. It just didn’t have a “canned” smell.
Just next to the restaurant was the drug store. You know, the old fashioned kind that has a bar with high stools. You can sit there and have a root beer while the pharmacist fills a prescription. One day, when he wasn’t looking, I stole a pencil from the school supplies counter. I rushed out and ran home to the safety of our apartment. I hid under the bed thinking any moment the town policeman would be looking for me. After awhile no one came. No one even knew I had stolen it. But I knew, and I knew it was wrong. I felt so guilty I took it back and put it on the shelf. Never again did I ever steal anything. I decided nothing would ever be worth the guilt that accompanied such a terrible sin. But even worse, I knew it would have broken my mother’s heart had she known.
First, the Great Depression that caused my Dad to lose half the farm to the bank, but then the worry and hard work of making our Sweet Shop and Star Theater a success. It wasn’t easy, but at my young age I was oblivious to the worries. I was a happy child in those days and somehow I felt secure. Although I don’t recall hugs and kisses, I knew I was loved by my parents. And I suppose I internalized the lessons that were taught at Sunday School and Primary because I rarely did anything really bad. Maybe I was unknowingly preparing myself for baptism. I am told that I was baptized by my grandfather in the American Falls reservoir, but I don’t recall the experience and I sorely regret this. I’m not sure where I missed out or who was to blame for the lack of preparation which would have made the event more meaningful and memorable, but I now wish there were photos in a scrapbook or something to that effect that would bring this important ordinance back to memory.
Christmas was always my favorite time because Santa would bring me a Shirley Temple doll. I got a new one every year. Dad always lugged in two big Christmas trees, the biggest he could find. One was for the lobby of the theater and the other would be tugged up the stairs for our living room. The boxes of ornaments would be brought out and my sisters and I would decorate the trees with everything from tinsel to angel hair. I would get scolded if I didn’t place every icicle just so on just the right branch. When all was finished and the lights were turned on, it was a sight to behold. I knew Santa would be well pleased and would enjoy his milk and pumpkin pie more at “our house” than anywhere else.
I must describe our apartment. It was above the theater and may have been a place of ill-repute at one time. The stairway was just to the left of the theater. Halfway up, there was a small bedroom that was situated directly over the projectionist’s booth. My two older sisters, Ella and Lois, slept there. On up the stairs were a large kitchen and a living room. Beyond the living room was my parent’s bedroom and beyond that, another small bedroom where my sister Nora and I slept. Behind the apartment was a huge area that we believe might have been a warehouse. At the back of the “warehouse” was a door that opened out to space. No stairway had been built, but a long ladder was placed there. A thin board was nailed across it about three feet from the floor to protect someone from falling out. My Dad had placed a bed there near the door where Nora and I would sleep on hot nights. With the door open, a breeze helped to cool us, but it would invite mosquitoes so a net was placed over our bed. I was always a little frightened because I would image bats coming in during the night and tangling themselves in our hair. Sometimes I would lie awake for hours watching the door, listening for footsteps coming up the ladder. Nora never seemed to worry. She was a fearless person and remained that way her entire life.
When Nora and I slept in our bedroom, the one just beyond our parent’s bedroom, we would often be awakened during the night when the light went on. Mom would be there looking for bedbugs crawling on the walls. They would come out of the corners and crevices after dark. One of their favorite hiding places was between the mattress and springs of the bed because they knew fresh blood was nearby. Mom was determined to save us from their nasty little bites that left itchy red spots on our skin. She would smash them wherever they could be found and often a splotch of our red blood would be left on the wall to be scrubbed away the next morning.
When my two older sisters left home--Ella, who went away to nursing school at Idaho Falls, and Lois to secretarial school in Salt Lake City--it freed up the bedroom over the projectionist’s booth. I loved to sleep there because I could hear the movie going on in the theater below. Every word was audible and I practically memorized the songs that were sung. I think I lost a lot of sleep when I slept there, especially when Frankenstein or Dracula was playing. I would plead with Nora to come sleep with me. She would, but they didn’t frighten her. As I said before, she was always fearless
When my Dad was young, before he and Mom were married, they lived in Utah. Dad played the fiddle in Mapleton’s dance band and he was quite good at playing just about anything “by ear.” Mom was born in Salem. Well, they met at a church social, fell in love and got married. That’s where they had their first three children, my three older sisters. Now back to my story about the projectionist’s booth, or rather the projectionist. One day he was rewinding a film, getting ready for the show that evening, and he accidentally cut the tip of his left little finger off in the revolving wheel. He was rushed to Doctor McKinnon’s office, a block away, who sewed the skin edges together, bandaged the wound and sent him on his way. Dad was informed of the accident, went to the projectionist’s booth to finish rewinding the film, and said to someone who was with him, “I’ll bet I know exactly how it happened.” He started to demonstrate the accident, but was too good at role-playing and repeated the episode. Within the hour, Doctor McKinnon was sewing up my Dad’s left little finger. He, too, had cut off the tip right up to the first joint. That was the end of my Dad’s fiddling, to the sorrow of all of us.
One day Mom and I were upstairs getting ready to help open up the “picture show.” I’ve been told that it was the first showing of “Gone With the Wind,” although I’m not sure that’s true. We were almost dressed when we heard the wailing of the town’s only fire engine. “I wonder where the fire is,” Mom said. We ignored it for awhile--until it got louder and louder. We ran to the window and looked down. There it was directly below us. The men were pulling the hose from the truck and heading straight into the theater! Mom and I quickly finished dressing and ran down the stairs. There we saw a long line of people eager to see “Gone With the Wind.” Horror was on their faces for fear the movie would be canceled and that the theater would go up in smoke. My Dad was mostly worried about the silver screen that was his pride and joy. He had paid the tremendous sum of one-thousand dollars for that screen so the projection of the picture would be as perfect as possible.
The volunteer firemen did a good job. They got the fire out which had started under the stage in the furnace room, but the theater was soaked! The aisle carpets were flooded and the seats were drenched! “The show must go on,” was the decision of the townspeople. Some had come quite a distance to see “Gone With the Wind” and they were not going home disappointed. Towels and rags were fetched from every corner available and the people started wiping down the theater seats. An hour later, the show began.
Perhaps it was the theater that gave me my love of music. I would see the Jeannette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy movies over and over. Deanna Durbin was a runner-up and Gene Autry stood in third place. I wrote him a letter once and asked him to wait for me till I grew up. He never answered it, but I got a signed picture of him on his horse. I’m not sure if I fell for the way he always defeated the bad guy or for his singing voice. Perhaps both. I just know that I loved to hear people sing and I vowed that someday I would become a singer.
I think I was seven when my oldest sister Ella left to enroll in an RN program at the LDS hospital in Idaho Falls. A year later Lois, who was just one year younger than Ella, went to Salt Lake to take a year’s training at Heneger’s Business College. That left Mom and Dad to run the theater and sweet shop with the help of just Nora, who was five years older than I, and me. I wasn’t much help at that age, but Nora was a big help at just twelve. Nevertheless, Mom and Dad had to hire help which put a dent in the profits. Business was good, though, and we prospered.
When I was ten Dad sold the theater and broke my heart: I could not endure the
thought of leaving Mary Ann. I cried desperately that my folks would let me stay in Aberdeen and live with her, but my tears were not convincing. That was in June of 1941, just six months before Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese.
Once my country was involved in World War II, life became very different, but I attributed the change to our move, not the war. We had settled in Idaho Falls, just forty miles from Aberdeen, and I was caught up with learning new things in school, finding new friends and exploring the surroundings. I was frantic when we first moved there. I had never known any place but Aberdeen and I desperately wanted to go back, but when I was elected as President of my English class, my attitude changed: I decided maybe Idaho Falls wouldn’t be such a bad place after all.
(To update “My story,” we later moved to Boise, Idaho, where I took singing lessons from Arminta Matthews for four years. Some years later, when I lived in Livermore, California, I joined the Valley Opera Group, directed by Henry Holt, and sang the roles of Madame Butterfly, Musetta (La Boheme), Loretta (Gianni Schicchi) and Adele (Die Fleidermaus). I am now living in Santa Rosa, California, doing family history work and “saving the