Wisdom//

My Childhood Hero Wasn’t Famous, But She Meant Everything to Me

My childhood hero was really my childhood teacher.

Krisanapong detraphiphat/ Getty Images
Krisanapong detraphiphat/ Getty Images

The name of my childhood hero was Virginia Hammacher.

A farm girl from rural Wisconsin, Virginia moved to the big city when she was 18, taking a job as a nanny to a wealthy family in town. Eventually, she became the head of the household staff, overseeing the maids and the new nanny. The family loved her as one of their own, and she was the very definition of devoted and loyal.

After working for the family for seven years, Virginia met a recent college graduate, got married, and moved to the suburbs in 1958. They had three children and a dachshund. Virginia was a homemaker while her husband worked as an engineer.

A dozen or so years later, a young family moved in next door. They needed a babysitter for their two young children since both parents worked. Virginia took the two young sisters in, and became their surrogate grandmother.

I was one of those sisters.

Mrs. Hammacher, as I called her, was very much the center of the world for my sister and I as we grew up. With our parents both working (which was practically unheard of in our area back in the late 1960s and early 1970s), they knew we needed a steady figure in our lives to help care for us when they couldn’t. Mrs. Hammacher was our teacher, disciplinarian, playmate, sage, and security.

She was our hero.

She had a massive garden. She taught us to play cards and Monopoly. She always insisted on having the dog as her character, and she would move around the board buying properties, saying things like, “Indiana wants me!” or “Marvin, Marvin Gardens!” When we were home sick from school, she would bingewatch game shows with us, going from the $25,000 Pyramid to the Price is Right to Match Game ’74. My parents invited her to all our school events, including plays and presentations. She never missed a chance to support us.

Mrs. Hammacher had an adventurous spirit. I think growing up on a Wisconsin farm inspired her to see the world for herself. She saved all the money she earned from watching us to travel the globe — going to six continents and nearly all 50 states. She brought us back treasures from those travels that I still have today, including a real Japanese lunch box, a camel statue from Morocco, and two Spanish flamenco dancers in all their finery.

Other neighborhood kids could not understand the magic of Mrs. Hammacher. They thought she was mean. That’s because she did not tolerate bad behavior from anyone. I remember when the kid across the street from her thought it would be funny to tip over all her garbage cans when they were full. Mrs. Hammacher marched right over, spoke to the kid’s parents, and stood over the kid as he had to pick up all the garbage he dumped out. As a special bonus, the kid also had to take out her garbage for a full month. Let’s just say she believed in accountability and respect, and no one dared cross her with rudeness or pranks.

Teaching was her greatest gift. Mrs. Hammacher never hesitated to let my sister and I try things. She patiently instructed us on how to properly shuffle a deck of cards. We would watch old movies, and she would explain to us the parts we didn’t understand fully. A notorious bookworm, she had books stuffed in corners all over her house, and she allowed me to pick up books and read. It was from her that I developed a love of Greek mythology, an appreciation for history, and an abiding affection for movie star biographies. I read all of those books from the Hammacher Library.

The greatest thing she ever taught me was the art of the scrambled egg sandwich. She had a special egg beater that reminded me of a mattress spring: You would push down a bunch of times to whip the egg into a frenzy with a little bit of milk. Than you poured the mixture into a hot pan coated with butter, and shoved the egg around until you had bright, fluffy curds. Then you spread some Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread (again, the nutritional ideals of the 1970s), put your eggs on, and dug in. I remember such a feeling of accomplishment, being able to make my own lunch. It was the first thing I learned to cook, and the item I am still most likely to whip together today.

We grew up. Mrs. Hammacher came to our graduations and our weddings. Her wedding gift to me was a colander, and her style of egg beater so I could make my own scrambled egg sandwiches. That egg beater is nearly 30 years old, and I still use it at least once a week.

The hardest part of having her as my hero was watching Mrs. Hammacher succumb to dementia. Her once quick, vibrant mind that was always so curious began to fade, and eventually disappeared. She died in an assisted care facility, where her family had to place her when they could no longer care for her at home. She died at the age of 84, with her family at her side. I cried harder at her funeral than I did at my own grandmother’s funeral. No adult other than my parents has ever had such a presence and impact on me.

Heroes are so often portrayed as larger than life. Mrs. Hammacher was life. She was smart, flawed, funny, and unapologetically herself all the time. Although she was not rich, she gave so much to all of the people she loved. I was lucky enough to be one of those people.

On my toughest days, on my happiest days, there is nothing I crave more than a scrambled egg sandwich. It is my deepest connection to my forever hero, Mrs. Hammacher the Great.

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