Maggie Wilson Author

Historical Non-Fiction in Northern Ontario

Aunt Helen

It was Easter, about four, perhaps five years ago. We hosted the family gathering and the weather was pleasant enough for us to sit outside. When the phone rang, I hesitated to answer it: let the machine pick up. I changed my mind and decided to use the call as an excuse to refresh drinks. I was glad that I did.

It was my cousin, Jeffrey. His mother, my aunt Helen, had died. She fell down a flight of stairs and struck her head when she landed at the bottom. After we discussed details of the funeral, I offered condolences and rejoined my family on the patio.

Conversation turned to Helen’s family as my brother and I retold the family story for our spouses and offspring.

The details of my extended family’s history are sketchy.  Here’s what I know:

  • Mom and Dad and two or three of mom’s sisters and their husbands, including Helen and Leroy lived together in the family home.
  • They paid rent to the Public Trustee who took control of grandmother’s estate about fifteen years earlier when she was hospitalized with an unnamed psychiatric disorder.
  • There was a feud. Something about money. (Isn’t it always about money?)
  • The aunts and uncles moved out and started families in their own homes.

Eventually, the family feud resolved itself, though I imagine that relationships were strained knowing what I know about the personalities of the people involved. Mom and her sisters made it work. We gathered at each other’s homes, usually a couple of times a year. Christmas mostly, occasionally for a barbecue. Naturally, the cousins played together while the adults sat around the kitchen table. There was not much chance for me to engage with and get to know my aunts and uncles.

I knew that Helen was an artist. She had painted a mural on the end wall of their rec-room. I also knew that she had been hospitalized with a mental illness after the birth of her third child. There was a long period when we did not visit Helen’s family.

We cousins grew up, married, and dispersed around the country. There was next to no communication with Aunt Helen or my cousins until my father died in 1984, and then mom in 1986.

When I was married to The One, out of the blue, Helen invited us for a visit. It had been about twenty years since I had last seen her. When she answered the door, I was startled to tears by how closely she resembled Mom.

We had a lovely reunion. She showed us her art work. Paintings, greeting cards, and story book illustrations, photography. She had a “thing” for Frida Kahlo, too, which struck me as odd. Of course, it was perfectly reasonable for her to take an interest in another painter. But Frida was so “out there”. Did that mean Helen was, too? I suppose I found all of this new information just a bit overwhelming. I still could not get over how much she looked like mom.

She gave me this necklace made of Fimo clay, a “Gruesome Granny” one in a series that she made for each of her nieces. I was overwhelmed, once again, by the sentiment.

gruesome granny

I was verwhelmed by the grotesqueness of the Granny, too, to tell the truth. I need to be in the right mood to wear the thing.

After my divorce to The One, I moved back to my home town and visited with Helen a few more times. I also reconnected with my cousin, her daughter, Joanne. We got along like a house on fire, Joanne and I. Soul mates, in a way. Through her I learned more about Helen’s life and mental health concerns and living with a man like Leroy.

Helen and Leroy were famous for their impromptu road trips. Not once was I home when they came by. I wish they had called ahead, so that I could have arranged to be there.

On one trip when I was elsewhere, Helen left the Fimo sculpture shown at the bottom of this post. To my eyes, she looks like my grandmother, Helen’s mom, Ella. I think she is adorable, and she sits on the hutch of my desk, overlooking my room.

After I relayed all of this to my family, I was surprised to learn that my brother held a grudge toward Helen and Leroy. Something about something that someone said the day of our mother’s funeral. Exactly as vague as that. I did not challenge him on it. There was no point.

Mind boggling, isn’t it, how perceptions and emotions can make for two completely different versions of an experience?

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

Keepsake Aunt Helen is the fifth in a series

Helen's Granny_001Helen's Granny_006Helen's Granny_008

Categories: Relationships


32 replies

  1. Your rather large family is certainly interesting, Maggie ! – there must be an amazing amount yet to learn about ’em all ! 🙂


  2. I love, love, love that sculpture. Great detail and the backwards sweater is so clever and says so much about the artist’s sense of humor. (Remind me to post a pic of a similar piece of “art” I made myself which is lacking detail and otherwise unremarkable.)

    When my brothers and I reminisce we often have way different perceptions of the same event, colored by our five year age difference among other things.



    • Isn’t she a sweetheart? I like her lace collar, and the pattern of her apron.
      You know, in part, the difference between my brother and me is that he had more “adult” time with my mom. After Dad died, both my brothers moved back home to live with Mom. I am ASSuming that he and she might have talked about family stuff. Or he has an active imagination and has been connecting dots the wrong way, or connecting dots that aren’t there in the first place.
      Hmm, family trait, you think? 😉


  3. Families can really be grist for the mill, eh Maggie? It is so true that the same family story might be told by as many differing perspectives as there were people in attendance. And “something said about something” can carry a walloping impact in the right circumstances!!

    The character on your necklace bears a strong resemblance to vintage pieces I’ve seen by an Asian jeweler whose name escapes me right now! Never mind – it’s just quirky enough to be worn and admired!


  4. Family perceptions are amazing- sometimes my sister and I don’t believe we grew up in the same house because our versions of things don’t come close to matching. This was a great read- and I love the sculpture and necklace.


  5. It’s so good getting to know your wider family through your wonderful words! Aunt Helen sounds a beguiling character. It is so interesting to hear how your brother sees things differently. Families can be so full of intrigue and fascination.


  6. The mysteries behind the family feuds are so intriguing. Each side has a different story. But, I LOVE the art work. Something about that statue just speaks to me.


  7. Fascinating insight into your family, Maggie. Helen sounds as if she was a great character. Money, possessions and words spoken in haste (and regretted at leisure) lie at the heart of so many family feuds; I know that is the case in my family. Both examples of art are very striking. xxx


  8. Those figures are so full of life and character, the mark of a true artist.


  9. The Fimo Granny has so much soul to it. To create a resonant unique personality out of Fimo is skilful means! Bravo to Helen. You have such warmth in your writing I love reading your posts. Thanks for sharing insight. Family feuds are so often about money! Happy Easter.


    • Happy Easter, to you, too Lita D! (Is that your correct moniker?) I’ve seen one YouTube video where an artist was making an orange slice using Fimo clay. The multitude of steps was mind-blowing. For a tiny orange slice the size of a penny! I cannot image the time that went into Helen’s sculptures.


      • Yes. I thought that too just how long it would take to achieve this detail. Fimo is such a paradox because whilst anyone can make a simple model out of it, to achieve something expressive and rarified is phenomenal! Hats off.

        Yes I am Lita D. Top to toe!

        The youtube video sounds cool. I will have a trawl for that.I can imagine a Fimo orange slice as being a stunning colour! Fimo does colour so well.

        Thanks again for sharing Helen’s work, I feel all the more enriched for enjoying her work.


  10. I love the bow in the front AND back of the sculpture. And the “Gruesome Granny” on the necklace reminds me of the wise woman, or the crone in so many traditional tales. It sounds like there is color and life in your family’s past and present, although things haven’t always been smooth. It is really neat that your aunt Helen was an artist. Thank you for the post and the pictures, and Happy Easter!


    • Happy Easter, Dixie. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Helen really flourished with her art in her later years.
      Here’s a confession. When I was a girl, and saw here work, my reaction was interesting in that I marveled not at the quantity or quality of her output, but that there was output at all. That is, I think I was biased, ageist. Old people aren’t creative, are they?


  11. I’m with Dixie–really like the Granny. She looks wise, warm, and magical. And enjoyed your story. It is too bad that family muck kept you from knowing your aunt, and your cousin, for so long, but great that Helen reached out to you.


    • Hi OB – you know what I also like? Her big bushy eyebrows. Ella (Helen’s mother) had a fairly stern look due to her eyebrows. Hey, I wonder if that’s part of Helen’s fascination with Frida?
      Pleased to have you by for your visit, my dear.


  12. She was a very talented sculptor.


  13. I always find it interesting to hear about other people’s extended family and their relationship with them. My father had only 1 brother (they were not on good terms) and all my mom’s family was overseas. In other words, I grew up without any extended family and I feel like I missed out on some good drama in my formative years 🙂


    • I suppose the positive aspect is that you missed out on the ‘bad’ drama, too! 😉 Have you had the chance to meet or otherwise connect with the aunts and uncles and cousins? A family tree on Ancestry or other site?
      I signed up for a free trial period on Ancestry. After a very brief dabble, I could not find a trace of my family.



  1. Keepsake | The Zombies Ate My Brains

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