Early Saturday morning my cousin called to tell me his mother, my dear Aunt Helen, died Friday evening. Since she was 97 years young, this call wasn’t an entirely unexpected. However, memories of Aunt Helen and all those I’ve lost were with me all day.
Aunt Helen was the last of my father’s siblings alive. That generation is no longer with us. From the moment of her birth until the day of her death, she experienced so many changes in her world: with wars, depression, booming economies, recessions, cultural changes, transportation changes, technologies, space, and social changes.
She was his favorite sister, and of all my dad’s sisters, she was my favorite aunt. I think most of my siblings felt the same way. Her infectious laugh, her incredible stories, her ability to get down to a child’s level and talk with them probably had much to do with it. As far as she was concerned when we were growing up, a hug and a treat and times spent cuddle against her would easily dispel the slings and arrows of child-size problems.
We adored her because she was so real. At age 80 plus she was still willing and able to drop down on the floor, lift her leg up, and rest its ankle in the crook of her neck and shoulder. She danced, she swam, she made cookies, and she believed nothing was better on a summer day than a drippy ice cream cone and stupid “Knock-Knock” jokes—or whatever the craze was for the age we were at the time. Of course, after spending a day at the beach.
Aunt Helen believed in family and held all the family stories in her oral history bank. From her I heard the stories of my great-grandfather who sailed the Great Lakes as a ship’s captain and helped rescue Chicago citizens from the Great Fire. Her youngest son carries that tradition on—he listened well to the stories. As a family we are blessed with hearing those tales that she told in her expressive speech. We remember those stories for their content and the way she told them.
Aunt Helen loved the movies and the gossip about the movie stars. Though she wasn’t one for glamour herself, she loved to see it in the movies and stars of her youth. I grew up hearing about Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford movies, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and so many others.
I mentioned Aunt Helen was a swimmer and that was something she shared with my Dad. Even into her 80’s she swam every day.
She was incredibly talented with a knitting needle, a crochet hook, or whatever those implements are that you use for cross stitch, embroidery, etc. I never had that talent but I appreciated it in her. I’ll treasure even more the handbag she designed and made for me several years ago.
Aunt Helen and her beloved husband Uncle Tom never missed family functions even when they moved several hundred miles away. Why? Because family and its traditions were important. It’s why she revisited all the places that held significance in her young life when she would return as if on her pilgrimage. Those trips always included the cemetery where whoever was fortunate enough to be with her would hear the stories about each relative buried there. She buried her dear Tom and oldest son Tommy there. They joined her parents and many of her siblings, and generations before—including that ship’s captain.
The pilgrimage included trips to the old neighborhood and checking out the huge home with the incredible wrap around sleeping porch and the kitchen which seemed so enormous to me when I was a child. Lake Geneva and Linn Pier where family picnics were held each summer was always another stop on her journeys home.
Aunt Helen was a beautiful woman, inside and out. With her own unique flair she carried out all the roles life demanded of her: daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend. She never believed she accomplished much in the world. However, those who remember her know how wrong she was about that. She was special. She brought laughter, happiness and joy with her wherever she was.
Fly with your dearly loved departed, Aunt Helen. They are waiting for that laughter—and the stories you bring of those of us living now.