Mr and Mrs Kopinski were an elderly couple who owned a little store on Falmouth and Fifth. It sold just about everything and me and my friends loved going there on a Saturday morning. The shop was a veritable cornucopia; though I didn’t know long words like that then.
We would stand in front of the line of big candy jars, half a dozen of us from the same class in school, trying to choose between gummy bears, liquorice laces, sherbet dabs, jaw breaker taffy, and lots more. Mr Kopinski was kind and patient: he seemed to understand our dilemma. He had a round, plump, currant bun face, which would crease into such a big smile that his twinkley eyes almost disappeared. When we finally made our minds up, he placed our purchases into small paper bags and took our nickels and dimes, warm from having been clutched for so long.
This was only the start of our Saturday treat. There were dozens of toys for us to inspect and try out, even though we had no money to buy them. Mr Kopinski surely knew that, but it did not deter him from allowing us to run model planes, cars and other miniature vehicles across the counter and around the floor. We would play marbles and skittles and risk wearing out the mechanism on clockwork clowns and animals. It was said that Mr and Mrs Kopinski had no children of their own, which was maybe why they were happy to see youngsters enjoying themselves in their store.
Being a girl, I was expected to like “girls’ toys”, but found them boring. The clammy plastic skin on dolls felt horrible, and why should I play with replica household appliances like stoves and wash tubs? My mom hated cooking and housework, so why was it supposed to be fun for little girls to pretend they were doing it? It was obvious that boys had much more fun with their toys, so I preferred playing with them.
We liked trying to jump cars over larger vehicles, leading to numerous collisions and triumphant yells. Sometimes I heard Mrs Kopinski’s wooden shoes clacking across the floor as she came to check on the commotion. Seeing how much we were enjoying ourselves, she would smile indulgently and return to her provisions counter.
I remember one day at the store in particular. Tired of trying to wreck things, I wandered over to see if Mrs Kopinski needed any help. Mrs K, wisps of white hair escaping as usual from her little paper cap, was in the middle of getting an order together for delivery. Knowing she did not like being interrupted when she was weighing things out, I sat on a sack of flour to wait until she was free.
I was always interested to look at the things which the shop had for sale, even though some of them lining the walls had a coating of dust and so presumably were not popular items. This applied to a bottle of California Poppy scent, which I hoped would still be there when I had saved enough to buy it for Mom’s birthday. But the foodstuffs did not stay around so long. There were always boxes of cookies and Hershey bars, tins of beans, vegetables and pet food. Sometimes, towards Christmas time, there would be big fruit cakes, which Mom said you could put the frosting on yourself, so folk would think the cake was home made. I had never tasted most of the cheeses on the counter and, from the smell of some of them, I doubted I ever would. The same went for the collection of evil-looking, dark-coloured sausage.
On the wall there was a large red lobster. Although I knew it wasn’t real, its tiny black eyes and drooping whiskers seemed to give it a sad expression.
I had never tasted lobster. I wondered if I had enough quarters left to take one home for Mom, as a surprise for supper. As soon as Mrs Kopinski had finished the order, I asked her excitedly where she kept the lobsters, presuming there was a tank in the back of the store. To my surprise, Mrs K laughed.
“Bless you child, lobsters is what rich folk eat, or those that live by the ocean.” She carried on chuckling, as though I had made a huge joke, but patted me on the head when she saw my red face. I hated it when grown-ups laughed at me for something I couldn’t be expected to know. Before I had a chance to offer to help behind the counter, the doorbell dinged.
I recognised the portly gentleman who entered as the local bank manager. I had seen him when I was in the bank once with Mom. Disappointed that we had not left with a big bag of dollar bills I wondered why Mom had not asked the manager for some. She said it didn’t work like that, unless you robbed a bank. Now there was a thought. Perhaps when I grew up, instead of being a housewife I would be a bank robber. It had to be more exciting than cleaning and listening to your family complaining about what you had cooked for dinner.
Mrs Kopinski beamed delightedly when I asked if I could help her. I went to fetch the tobacco and boot polish that Mr Levy, the bank manager, wanted, and by the time I returned Mrs K was neatly wrapping his other purchases. As usual, she enquired about her customer’s health and about his family. Perhaps it was because Mr Levy went on so long about his bad back that Mrs K. appeared less interested than she usually did. When he had left the store, she gave a big sigh and passed a hand across her eyes.
“Oh Susan, I’m so sorry”, she said weakly. “I’m a little bit tired. I think I’ll lie down for a few minutes. Would you look after the counter for me, dear?” I could hardly believe that I had been entrusted with this important task on my own and waited eagerly for the next customer to come through the door.
As it turned out, I didn’t do any serving because the store had to be closed early. Mr Kopinski had come hurrying out to tell me and the boys that his wife was not at all well and he had telephoned for an ambulance. We children were shocked into silence and began to leave the store.
I was just going to pick up my coat and purse when the door bell jangled and someone called “Shop!” A man and a lady in uniform entered with a stretcher. The boys and I waited outside and watched as Mr Kopinski followed his wife, who was on the stretcher, into the ambulance. When it had driven away the boys walked off, but I stood on the sidewalk and cried. Supposing Mrs K died. She was such a lovely, kind lady. (I had completely forgiven her for laughing at me.) Whatever would Mr Kopinski do without her? After a little snivel I felt a bit better and hurried home to tell Mom. Sometimes I was glad I was a girl and did not have to pretend I didn’t have any feelings.
It was such a relief when we heard that Mrs Kopinski was not suffering from anything serious and had returned home that evening. Next morning I picked some flowers from our garden and took them, along with a little pot of honey which Mom had got me from the hive, to cheer up Mrs K. I left them on the step in front of the store, as it was still closed and I did not want to disturb the Kopinskis.
When I had told Mom how worried I was about Mrs K, she said the people in the hospital would look after her very well. That got me thinking how wonderful it must be to help sick people feel better. After all, bank robbers spent a lot of time in prison if they got caught, and nobody liked them, but nurses were “angels in uniform”. That’s what Uncle Harry had said when we visited him in hospital, and I had seen how many boxes of chocolates the nurses were given. Then I realised that the most important people in the hospital were the doctors. It must be amazing to actually save people’s lives.
Suddenly my mind was made up: I would be a doctor. And if Mom said girls couldn’t be doctors, I would walk over to Granddaddy’s and see what he said!
Those memories are from nearly thirty years ago. The Kopinskis and their store are long gone but I still have fond memories of my visits there. As I sit at my desk enjoying a much-needed break, my pager goes. Sighing, I leave my coffee and go to see what the next patient needs. Sometimes I think life would have been easier if I had been a stay at home housewife, or a shop assistant; but, on a good day, not nearly so rewarding.