Monday, April 21, 2008

Aunt Helen

I'm standing in front of our house; I'm perhaps 6 years old.

My Aunt Helen is sitting on the porch, reading.

Standing next to me is a younger playmate, whom I'll call Willy.

I am trying to introduce Willy to my Aunt Helen.

"Willy," I say, "say hello to my Aunt Helen."

Willy says nothing. He's nervous, he's fidgety and he's probably scared, perhaps in part because the woman on the porch is wearing a nun's habit, and he's not used to dealing with that.

Being perhaps 6 years old, I don't exactly pick up on this.

But Aunt Helen does.

"Willy," I say, "say hello to my Aunt Helen."


"Aunt Helen," I say, "say hello to my friend Willy."

She gives him a big smile. "Hello, Willy!"

"Willy," I say, "say hello to my Aunt Helen."

Still nothing.

This goes on for maybe five minutes in the same absurd way. At least I hope it was only five minutes. But I'm sure it goes on long enough to give Samuel Beckett the heebie-jeebies.

But not my Aunt Helen. She goes along, and she is obviously willing to keep going along for however long it takes.

And somehow I think this story, which my aunt loved to recount in later years, pretty much summarizes the way she was.

Kind. Practical. Patient.

A born teacher, whether the subject was the niceties of business law or how to tie your shoes.

When she died, she had been a nun for about 70 years, a span that included the changes that resulted from Vatican II.

(Actually, she wasn't really my aunt but my great-aunt, a distinction we kids -- there were six of us -- usually didn't make. She was my grandmother's sister, about 18 years younger.)

Of my two aunts (Aunt Dorothy was a nun, too), she was the more conservative. At first she didn't like the idea of switching to the "new habit" (which would eventually become "no habit at all"), but she eventually went along with it and even embraced it; I remember thinking it was kind of cute when, in the late 1960s, my aunts would compare notes on the best places to shop for clothes.

And when my godmother, a very conservative Catholic, showed up at my mother's funeral in the early '80s, Aunt Helen pretty much told her, "You probably want to see me back in the habit, but it ain't gonna happen, so deal with it."

Of course, she didn't use those exact words....

In addition to shopping for clothes, there was something else she learned later in life: how to drive.

Then again, my mother would probably take issue with the word "learned." And perhaps someday I will tell the tale of a car journey that she, Aunt Helen, Uncle Bob, my brother Michael and I embarked on together. Michael and I are the sole remaining survivors of this trek, which I lovingly refer to as the "Death Trip to Oswego."

Unlike my Aunt Dorothy, who was a college professor, Aunt Helen taught high school business classes. I don't know that she ever received an award for teaching, unless you count the number of former students who kept in touch with her.

And who, I would venture to guess, still use the skills she taught them.

Kind. Practical. Patient.

For someone who took a vow of poverty, that's an especially rich legacy.

1 comment:

Pawlie Kokonuts said...

Beautiful eulogy, Mark, for surely a beautiful person.