Saturday, January 31, 2009


A time or two, I've told the story here, briefly or at length. Unkie and Helen helped to raise me. At their big anniversary party a few years ago, Unkie introduced me to everyone as his oldest granddaughter. His guests would scratch their heads, probably doing the math and wondering if one of his girls had had a secret baby in her youth. He would laugh at their expressions and explain that when I was born, Mom got sick, so he and Helen took care of me, and I'd been their girl ever since.

Helen embroidered a pretty wallhanging when I was born. She made me beautiful dolls and sewed an activity book for me. Helen made me Christmas tree ornaments, too. When I got my appendix out, she and Unkie gave me a teddy bear that remains one of my favorite toys from childhood.

Unkie and Helen let me stay over a lot. Sometimes, my parents would arrange for my brother and me to come visit. Other times, my parents and I would be stopping at their farm for a moment, and I would beg to stay. Usually, Helen said yes. She would find some spare pajamas for me, and wash my face with cool, thick swipes of Noxema. Cool nights, she would tuck me in with mounds of quilts and cozy electric blankets, and I would fall asleep to the sounds of the hogs' waterers clanking.

Mornings, I would sneak into bed with Unkie and Helen. It must have been indecently early if they were still in bed, because they were early risers. Usually, Unkie would start to tickle me, or give me Tazmanian Devils (twisting my big toes). This often would continue until I screamed out, "Helen! Heleeeeeen! Save MEEEEEEEEEEE!" She always did: "Now, Dad, cut that out."

On summer mornings, Helen would smear my skinny arms and legs with sunscreen and Skin-So-Soft to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Then we would go play in the garden or the creek while Unkie farmed. We would sweep the playhouse and wipe down its surfaces with warm soapy water. There, I would pretend to cook for her, using empty spice tins.

Other days, we cooked for real. Helen let me make "marshmallow salad," which was a mix of mini marshmallows, raisins and chocolate chips in a Tupperware canister. When I was a little older, we started making candy. She would help me melt almond bark and chocolate in the "radar range." We would pour it into moulds in the shapes of bows and bells, or make chocolate peanutbutter cups and pops.

Then Helen began teaching me to bake. First she taught me how to make cinamon rolls. Together we mixed powders and liquids, kneaded it into dough--folding and pressing, lifting, turning and pounding-- and set the bowl of dough in the sun to rise. Once the cheesecloth covering the bowl arched, we uncovered the yeasty mass, punched it down and let it rise again.

She taught me how to flour the heavy rolling pin, roll the dough flat and brush it with butter, cinnamon and sugar. We rolled the pastry and sliced the rounds, which rose in the oven, filling the house with a heady sweet-spice scent. I got a purple ribbon at the county fair with those rolls. Another year, she taught me to make a seven-grain bread, so hearty I had to hold the mixing bowl between my legs and use both of my scrawny arms to stir. I would grunt with the effort, and Helen would laugh.

Helen and I would play dress-up. She had a box of costume jewelry, and she would help me select a necklace, and clip matching earings on my ears. She would put a little cherry chapstick on my lips. Helen would play with my hair and let me play with hers, or Unkie's, for that matter. In fact, once she even let me use her makeup to give him a makeover while he slept (or pretended to be asleep).

Her house was so clean that I was afraid to make a mess. A few times I did, and I was so afraid she would be mad both times. The first time, I threw up goulash on her brand new beige carpet. The second time, we were preparing thousands of strawberries and frosting thousands of pretzels for Karen's wedding when Karen and I got into a frosting fight. In the first case, she just told me, "Oh, that's okay, honey." In the second case, she ran to get a camera, and snapped several candid pictures of Karen and me, streaked with teal icing. I don't remember Helen ever yelling at me. She was amazingly patient and kind.

On a church trip a few years ago, Helen was on a boat that circled Manhattan. She told me afterword that it scared her to see the island, so big with its looming buildings, and imagine me on that island, so small and on my own. I hugged her and kissed her, because nothing I said seemed to make her less concerned.

I hope I'm remembering this story right, because its one that stuck in my head: when Helen traveled to Russia, her hosts had been marinating meat out on a counter all day long. With one bite, Helen knew if she ate it, she would be ill. Rather than hurt her hosts' feelings, she snuck each bite into her purse. It was told as a story of cultural differences, and mishaps abroad. For me, it was a lesson on how to be a lady. A lady is gracious and makes those around her feel at ease. Helen was truly a lady.

Thank you, Helen, for all the love and care you gave me. I will never forget it. I will never forget you.

Love always,

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