In the Silent Darkness


Down the back sidewalk and turn right to go down the alley to the park; turn left to go up the alley to school. I went to the West Chester State Teachers College Demonstration School, which is way too much to fit on the little line that applications give you to name your elementary school. Jean and I either would walk or ride our bicycles the seven blocks to school. Sometimes we would ride with Dad if he had an early class, or the father of the jerky little kid who was a friend of my brother Ricky’s after Jean graduated to junior high school. College professor fathers who had eight o’clock classes came in handy if you didn’t feel like walking.

The school was a big chunk of green serpentine rock that had been built 55 years before I arrived. The original wooden floors—broken, splintered, sanded and waxed—still undergirded our daily activities. The lunchroom on the second floor smelled eternally of boiled hotdogs. There was one class of 28 students for each grade. Some mornings we would come in to find folding chairs placed all around the outside of the room. We were a DEMONSTATION school on the campus of a college that trained teachers. It was our job to demonstrate how children learned. We also had two student teachers assigned to our class every semester, year after year. They all had had classes with my father, which was a bore. One day I arrived late to school, having first been to the dentist, and had to climb over the legs of all the college students to get to my desk.

Our dentist was Dr. Elwood Spellman whose home and office were three blocks up the street from where we lived. Whether we went to him because he was nearby or because he was president of the school board I never knew, but being academically inclined was certainly an important factor. Periodically Dr. Spellman would hire a young dentist to work with him. Periodically, they would leave, then he finally got a keeper—a young fellow who ultimately inherited the practice. My sister went to him from her age of 17 until he retired some forty years later.

The woman in Dr. Spellman’s office was Mrs. Hunter, mother of John, my classmate. Mothers all stuck together in those days. When Dr. Spellman had an unexpected opening, Mrs. Hunter would call my mother and my mother would send up whichever of the five of us was cleanest. If we needed emergency work then we’d walk up and be there at 8:00. The dentist would come in, turn on the lights, stick us with Novocain, and then go around and turn on all the other lights and machines. There was an aquarium in front of the patient’s chair, which was rather interesting.

We went to the Methodist Church, maybe because Dad’s family was Methodist or maybe because the superintendent of schools and lots of the college professors and administrators went there. It was big and had two services on Sunday morning to accommodate all the members. There were five choirs: cherub, which sang once a month; children’s, with about 35 members; junior high; senior high and college, which sang at the early service; and adult. I sang from Children’s to Senior High School. On Christmas Eve there were about a hundred singers massed for the candlelight service.

The best service in the entire world was at the college. When my mother was a student there, they would have a “white dinner” before the concert. All the girls wore long white gowns; the fellows wore dark suits, and the name of the girl who would be singing “O Holy Night” would be announced. This was very special and a big honor.

Years later, when Dad taught there, we would go to the concert as a family. All the lights would go out, leaving only the candles in the big wreaths on each side of the stage in the huge auditorium. Then, in the great silence, from the lobby behind the balcony, the girls would all start to sing “Adeste Fideles” a cappella. Their sweet voices would drift through the doors and settle down over us, then the men’s voices would answer from the back of the first-floor lobby. Carrying candles, the hundreds of students would sing as they processed down the three aisles to their seats.

At the end of the concert, with all the college vocal groups taking their turns at performing, the lights would be put out again and all the students would carry their candles and sing their way out. Then in the silent darkness the voices would again drift in from behind the second-floor balcony, singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” It was very magical. Now I go to the Christmas program at Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel, which is only about one-quarter as big as the college auditorium of my childhood.

One year, when we got home after the concert, Mother was mad at us because we all were so awkward in putting on our coats. We wind-milled a lot. She made us all stand in the front hall and learn how to put our coats on gracefully without putting out anyone’s eye. Mother was keen on having a graceful lifestyle. Linen tablecloths and napkins were her idea. Also, ice cream.

One night she announced that we were having ice cream for dessert and the five of us kids all reacted with such noise and excitement that she decided we should have ice cream often enough that we could act like ladies and gentlemen, not orangutans and baboons, when it was announced. The best ice cream was snow ice cream, which consisted of taking a bowl outside after a snowstorm, filling it with snow, then adding sugar and vanilla and spooning it up. You had to make sure you didn’t get any yellow snow.

We actually had very little snow, but it was heavy and wet so cars were always packing it down and spinning, spinning, spinning on it until the rubber tires gave off a burning odor. You had to have “chains,” which were something your father put on the rear tires so there would be traction. When you heard the rattle and clink of chains on the street after the snow had melted then you knew it was a farmer coming in from the country.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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