Remembering Dr. Pepper
Scientists say that memory and the sense of smell are intimately intertwined,1 and it’s a sure bet The Legal Genealogist isn’t going to disagree one bit.
That link of memory and smell was driven home again yesterday when I stopped off at the farmers’ market to see what might be available that wasn’t in the weekly share from the farm cooperative where I have a share.
And there they were. Farm fresh Jersey blueberries. Plump, juicy, sweet and oh so very delicately scented… and instantly I am once again four years old and summer has just arrived in a new town, a new state, even a new country from what I can remember.
I was born in Colorado, but I have no childhood memories of that state. When I was two, my father — a chemical engineer — accepted an assignment with Shell Oil Company that took us to The Hague in The Netherlands for a year. I have nothing I’d be willing to call memories of the year in Europe, though I do have fragmentary memories of the return trip on an ocean liner. So the first recollections that I have that I’m confident are real memories are from the time after we got back to the States and moved to a big white house on a dead-end street in what was then called Stelton, New Jersey.
Next door to our house was the backyard of a property that ran all the way from the next street down through to our street. And in that backyard… oh, in that backyard… were blueberries. And not just any blueberries, but blueberries grown by a magician.
His name was Bailey B. Pepper and he was a scientist, a Ph.D. scientist — Dr. Pepper! — to boot, chairman of the Department of Entomology at Rutgers University.2 He had a green thumb, an impish and wicked sense of humor, and the ability to make a child — any child — think you were the center of his world.
And the first memories I have of any of those three attributes are from that very first June we lived there, and the very first time he caught me wistfully eyeing the blueberries I didn’t quite have the courage to try and snitch.
Now you have to understand this was back, oh, about a kazillion years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, yadda yadda, and a four-year-old just did not go up to a neighbor’s door and ask for blueberries. Standing four feet away from the bushes and practicing your cutest “pretty pretty please” look was just fine. But you didn’t beg and you didn’t take. At least not unless you were sure you wouldn’t get caught.
Since I had four years of experience in getting caught by that point, I opted for practicing my cutest “pretty pretty please” look. And it worked. I was handed a handful of blueberries, the first I remember, and this tall distinguished-looking gentleman sat with me in the grass as I ate them. And that, as Humphrey Bogart’s Rick said in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The local schools were willing to take my then-six-year-old sister in second grade because she’d had first grade classes in the Netherlands. But they wouldn’t take this four-year-old in kindergarten and my parents didn’t want us more than two years apart in school. So we both went off to Rutgers Prep for a year, and Dr. Pepper drove us in and out on his commute to the university. He had me completely convinced that there was a troll under the Landing Lane Bridge that only ate four-year-olds. I can’t begin to describe my relief the day I finally turned five.
Because he obviously knew so much about such matters, he was the one my sister and I went to with our fears about the monsters around our room. There was the gorilla in the closet (“gorillas are dumb, just close the door and the gorilla can’t open it to get out”) and the alligator under the bed (“it’s there to make sure you stay in bed but if you need to go to the bathroom, just tell it and it’ll let you out, no problem”) and the big one — the monster outside the house. It took us years to discover that he told my sister — who slept closest to the door — that the monster would come in the window and get me first, making her promise to run and get help. He told me that the monster would come in the door — getting my sister first — and I had to promise to run and get help.
I was about 10 the year we spent a New Year’s Day dinner with the Peppers, who had a tradition of hiding a silver dollar in the black-eyed peas. It posed a terrible dilemma when the silver dollar ended up on my plate with a big spoonful of black-eyed peas: my father insisted I couldn’t keep the silver dollar unless I ate all the black-eyed peas… and I have always loathed black-eyed peas. After a few minutes of watching me stare morosely at both dollar and peas, Dr. Pepper told me to bring my plate and we’d finish them in the kitchen and wash off the dollar. Off we went, the swinging door closing behind us. He cautioned me to silence, put my plate on the floor where the English setter Princess was only too happy to take care of the peas, and helped me wash off the dollar. When we walked back into the dining room, he announced with careful precision: “She ate all the peas.”
I don’t think he ever told anybody who “she” was. And I’d never been so grateful to an adult in my life.
I must have been about 12 when he taught me how to make blueberry muffins. I was perhaps 13 when he gently discouraged me — after a summer enrichment class he taught in part — to pursue a career that didn’t involve math or science or (heaven forfend!) the bugs he loved so much. I was 15 when I went to him with my question about going to the prom with that boy. I was 16 when he helped me make the decision to skip my senior year of high school and go on to college. And I was only a few years older when we lost him — a loss I don’t think anyone who knew him has ever completely recovered from.
Friends, they say, are the family you can choose for yourself, and in every way except biologically he was family, to me and to all of my family.
And oh… how the sight and taste and smell of the first June blueberries will bring those memories back…