The Junior IBYC Group (late 1950s)
Front: Frankie Stella, Tommy Moriello, Buddy Classen
Middle: Mary Lou Gigante, Ronny Tarr, Priscilla Jorgensen, Helen Lang, Mary Ann Tarr
Back: Jackie Balch, Bette


Mary Lou, Bette, & Helen
September 1988

Helen and I met as Great Neck summer residents when she was 11 years old. Like the other Neck kids our age, Helen, Mary Lou, and I spent a lot of time just hanging out: in Helen’s living room looking through her brother Lou’s Anapolis yearbooks; on the yacht club porch; at the end of the IBYC dock; in the yacht club snack bar listening to juke Box pop hits like Blueberry Hill, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Only You, and The Great Pretender. We called ourselves the Ipswich Bay Junior Yacht Club and we sometimes planned organized activities, like the annual semi-formal dance or a beach party on Plum Island. But, more often, we’d plan an impromptu party in Helen's state-of-the-art recreation room in her basement, where we’d dance, play Ping-Pong, drink Cokes and talk.

The summer Helen got her license we tooled around Ipswich in her mother's car, at first just to Bruni's to pick up fresh vegetables, eventually around town with a stop at Janice's to check out the "townies." One of the townies was Bob Lang, but none of us knew then that he would someday be her husband. The avant garde outfit in the '50s, as seen on Great Neck, was Madras Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouses, and espadrilles, but we drove to the beach in bare feet and bathing suits. On the boardwalk, carrying only towels, we privately scorned the married women lugging everything but the kitchen sink, and we swore we would never be like them. Then if we had to pick up something for Helen’s mother on the way home, we marched right into the First National or the A & P in our bathing suits, shocking the old ladies, confident we'd never be like them either. In August, Helen’s Tante Anna would come for a visit and take Helen school-shopping at The Style Center. The next day, Helen would model her outfits for Mary Lou and me--sweater sets, shirts with the collar turned up, and straight skirts down to the socks with a discrete six-inch slit up the back.

Our friendship lasted through college, even though we didn't see each other much. We were both back on the Neck, though, when Helen got engaged to Bob Lang. Mary Lou and I approved of him. He was funny and cute. He read passages from Lady Chatterly’s Lover aloud to Helen, Mary Lou and me. Helen was a bridesmaid in my wedding, and a bridesmaid in Mary Lou’s, and I would have been a bridesmaid in both of theirs but I was living in Germany when they got married. We all wore Priscilla of Boston wedding gowns. Helen and I corresponded. She visited me after Deahn was born, and I visited her when Cindy was born.

Eventually, Helen and I, with our own families, settled on Great Neck. We were both graduate students, Helen at Simmons and I at Tufts. We turned into those women who brought lots of stuff to the beach. We'd go in the morning with lunch, settle the kids on blankets nearby, warning them never to go in the water without telling us, and we'd stay all day, talking and reading. Occasionally, when it was too beautiful to go home and cook dinner, one of us would make a market run and bring back refreshments to last until sunset.

Other times, when Bob was traveling, Helen would call and say, "Let's take the kids to the Whittier for dinner." I lived for those dinners. I had three children, no car, and no husband, so mostly I was home. She'd pick us up in her Volkswagen with the red stripe she had painted down the middle, and we'd put Doug and Mia in the "way back" and Cindy, Deahn and Lori in the back. At the Whittier, Doug and Mia would share one booth, Cindy, Deahn, and Lori another, and Helen and I had our own. Afterwards, we’d send them all out into the car and tell them if they were good, we'd take them to Dairy Queen. Then, we'd each order a glass of wine.

The Whittier Motel is where I met Charlie. He bartended there and Helen introduced him to us. Helen and Bob came with us on our first date. We went to Jacques Brel at the Charles Playhouse. One of the songs from the show that Helen loved was "Marieke." Then Judy Collins recorded it on her Whales and Nightingales album, and we listened to it a lot. Helen and Bob named their sailboat "Marieke."

During the early '70s, though we were a bit old to be hippies, Helen and I took advantage of our slim figures and plunged right into the fashion scene. First, we went through a frantic sewing phase. Using one simple pattern, we sewed sleeveless shifts in all colors and fabrics, some for daytime, others for evening. Our skirts kept getting shorter. Once Bob told us, as he was leaving for a business trip, "If you'll both make really glamorous dresses this week, I'll take you to the Bunny Club Saturday night." We did it. Helen's was black and mine was white. They were strapless and short.

Then we graduated to mini-skirts, boots, and even hot-pants. We listened to The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle, The Who, and the George Harrison album with "Hey Jude" on it. We held candles in an anti-war vigil on town hill. We worked for our favorite political candidates and went to town meetings together. Helen and I have always been glad we were part-time Hippies, glad that the era didn’t simply pass us by.

When the kids got older, we started bike-riding together. At the Skol Shop we picked out beautiful new 10-speed Raleighs. They had crooked handlebars, that you had to lean forward to hold, and skinny tires. Helen's was teal and mine was frosted plum. It was before bike helmets and before anyone paid attention to biking rules. Anyone, that is, except Helen. She was always yelling at me to get back on the right side of the road and to stop riding crooked and to keep up. I was a novice at biking. Helen was an old hand. She had been riding her bike downtown and back for years. Half the cars and trucks that passed us waved to her and she waved back.

Gradually, walking replaced bike-riding. Helmets and biking uniforms and mountain bikes made our bikes and biking outfits obsolete, and Helen and I were never those to be at the wrong end of fashion! This is when Helen became my devoted walking buddy. Of course, she had always walked, and I was again a novice, so she had work to do. "You’re slowing down," she’d say. "If we’re going to get any benefit out of this, you have to walk faster." On those walks we talked about everything, our kids, our husbands, our jobs, hers as librarian, mine as English teacher, and Helen’s latest traveling plans. She planned those trips with the enthusiasm of a child planning a birthday party. Soon we began to talk about our grandchildren, first Alec, then Molly, then Chuckie, then Alexander, James, and Charlotte, then Margaret Helen, and Laura.

Our walking and biking continued during the twelve April school vacation weeks I spent with Helen at Vero Beach. We’d bike early in the morning to Riverside Park, then walk the two-mile walking path. That earned us a fresh orange juice at Kennedy Groves or a muffin and coffee on the boardwalk. At low tide, we’d walk a mile on the beach to "the tree" and back or, in the other direction, to the end of the boardwalk and back. We both knew we had to earn our dinners at Bobbies, or Riverside Cafe or Vincents or Captain Manatees. After the new bridge over Indian River was built, we topped off our dinner with a walk to the end of the bridge and back.

The amazing thing about our friendship is that Helen and I are really different. She balanced her check book and I don’t. She checked her mail and her messages every day, and I don’t. She was on waving terms with half the population of Ipswich, and I don’t recognize anybody. She was so upset with my not buckling up she bought me a sheepskin pad to put around the shoulder belt so it would be more comfortable.

Helen loved football. I’d always hated it, but Helen’s enthusiasm for the game was so contagious that watching a Patriot’s game as her guest in Robert Kraft’s box or in her room in Ellison 14, I was as big a Patriot fan as she. For the past three years Helen and Bob and Charlie and I have been going to Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts together, and, though Helen would never call herself a classical music fan, she had tears in her eyes listening to Bruch’s Violin Concerto #1 in G minor.

Heled hated to shop, and I love to shop. If Helen needed something, she would put it on a list, decide where to go to get it, be there when the store opened, buy it, and take it home. I, on the other hand, could spend all day, just browsing. I helped Helen choose her mother-of-the-bride outfit. We went from Saks to Filenes and everywhere in between. Helen tried on tons of dresses. None was just right. Then we drew a picture, with the features of the dresses we liked, and she had her dress made at Immie’s. It was perfect for Cindy’s September Castle Hill wedding.

I went with Helen before her first chemo treatment to help pick out a wig. I helped her pick out head scarves. And later I helped her find casual outfits that opened down the front for the I.V. tubes. One day, when she was trying on one of them, pulling it over her head, her wig flew off and rolled out under the door. I picked it up and she opened the door and said she was so glad it was only me out there.

After Helen came home from the Seattle Cancer Research Center and was comfortably settled in her chair by the fireplace with her family around her and Ipswich Bay in view, I went to visit her. Over her lap she had a handmade quilt that they gave to her when she left the inpatient unit in Seattle. The quilt suited Helen perfectly, warm, bright colors of cherry and grape and green and gold in geometrical shapes. Her dark hair had grown back. She looked so pretty. It’s only one of a thousand images of Helen that I will keep.
Helen & Bette at the Polls
"Poll Workers" Ipswich Chronicle photo by Peter Werwath
Bette's Home Page