Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Remembering Helen

The last of the leaves. Photo: JH.
Tuesday,  December 13, 2016. Cold, but in the low 40s; and grey as if snow were coming our way (it wasn’t). The holiday spirit is picking up despite the distractions of our everyday world. My friend Tracey Jackson who lives here in New York published a piece yesterday on her blog taking a tour of Fifth Avenue at this time of year. Tracey, as you may have read before, is a very good tour guide: just the facts, and how it feels, and her camera does the rest. So we asked her if she’d mind our running it on today’s Diary. She didn’t mind.

“Ten more shopping days till Christmas.” When I was a kid the local paper beginning on the first of December ran a small box on the front page with a image of Santa with a big sack of presents on his back, and the words about how many more shopping days until Christmas. To the kid, it was the excitement and anticipation of Christmas morning when you woke to wondering “what” and “if” Santa delivered anything on your “List.”
I had a couple of very real Santas in my very young life, one being my mother, and the other being my eldest sister Helen. Helen was fourteen when her little brother was born and from those first days and weeks, she was very much a second mother to me. As the second mother, she expressed that quality one step removed, and so her mothering was patience, generosity, thoughtfulness and ice cream, potato chips and chocolate bars — all things that were rare with my real mother (except on birthdays and holidays) — and Santa.

Big sis Helen watching over her little bro way back when in Massachusetts, circa 1945.
Me and my big sister at the Frick last March.
So when each morning in December this kid anticipating checked out the Santa and the “... shopping days til ...” box on the front page of the Springfield Republican, it was Helen who was mainly on my mind. Because I knew I could be sure that on Christmas morning there would be brightly wrapped surprises for her little brother under the tree and all with Helen’s touch.

Helen died last Wednesday at 89. She would have been 90 on May 13th. She lived almost all of her life in Massachusetts and especially on the Cape. Although several years ago after her husband of sixty years, her childhood sweetheart, Raymond died, she moved to Naples, Florida where she could be near her daughter Susan.

She had been healthy all her life except in the last ten or so years, when she developed heart problems as well as what seemed like rashes of skin cancers on her arms and legs. Each was treated and removed although they returned with a vengeance at times. Her heart problems also required surgeries that were too medically risky for her age. These conditions slowed her down sometimes quite a bit. But she had always been one of those people who bore hardship — and she had plenty of it in her long life — with a shrug and putting one foot in front of the other.

She could also laugh about it. She lived alone, with daughter nearby, and spent her days visiting friends, helping neighbors who were infirm or under the weather, working in the hospital and church auxiliary shops, baking cranberry bread (the Cape Cod influence) or cookies for friends and neighbors and a brother. She was very skillful with a needle and thread (as well as the sewing machine) and there were always things that needed to be fixed of hers and others. The last time she came to see me, she always replaced a number of shirt buttons for brother.

She was hospitalized a few times over the past few years, and there were doctor’s suggestions that she might be finishing, but she always recovered. She didn’t actually recover as much as she “adapted” and moved forward. After her husband’s death, she liked traveling — seeing the world — and had a very good traveling companion in her daughter Susan who could also look after her mother, making sure she was taking her meds and not pushing herself too much. The two women also shared the same sense of humor, big on the comedy of irony and quick to laugh about it. And so they laughed a lot.
Little Dave, aged 2, with his big sis Helen and her childhood sweetheart and husband of sixty years, Raymond.
A couple of months ago they planned a trip to Scotland where they could also see one of Helen’s grandnieces who is in university over there. In the weeks before the scheduled trip Helen’s issues were talking more. Susan asked her if she wanted to cancel this trip so avoid any serious “discomfort.”

Susan also added that she’d already taken out “insurance” that they could redeem their tickets and reservations, knowing that her mother never liked wasting money. Helen’s reaction was typical. “If I’m going to die, what difference does it make where I am?” Susan laughed, and so did Helen, and they were off.

She ran into serious problems once in Edinburgh, however, and ending up being hospitalized for 20 days. Helen called me from there to tell me where they were and that she was fine, except for her being kept in the hospital. But she was released four days before Thanksgiving, and that day she and Susan were airborne.  She celebrated the holiday with her daughter and her daughter’s companion Dan. Thirteen days later, she died, peacefully in the hospital.

She’d already ordered my Christmas present. For grownups: a box of Florida oranges. If she had been here, there would have been a loaf of her cranberry bread in the mail too. She always signed her letters and cards to me: “Love Ya, Sis.”

She was never one to voice it in words, and she was shy about a hug or a kiss. We didn’t grow up with that but got over it some in the later years. Yet Helen was there, always there, from the very beginning of my life to this moment that I write these words.  She affirmed it over and over for three quarters of a century, always with a kind word or a boost, or a gift that she made or baked herself of a Love Ya, Sis.

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