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.
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?
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Keepsake Aunt Helen is the fifth in a series