Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Gently Say Goodbye

Today I said goodbye.

She was my neighbor growing up and more importantly to me, my best friend's mom.  Today I went to the only viewing for her before her funeral and said goodbye.  Funerals are for the living and a chance to have closure or so they say.  But today I said goodbye to Helen.

Helen was as much a fixture in my growing up as my own mom for many years.  From the time I was about five years old and I went to our field's fence line and yelled across it at the little girls in the field beyond, my life seemed inexorably tied to my two best friends and their mom.

Marlene and Betty were the middle two girls of four.  Betty was 8 months younger than me but in the same grade.  Marlene was 6 months older and the grade ahead of me.  The sisters were as different as night and day in looks and often in thought, word, and deed.  But they had the bond of sisters that I so envied and when push came to shove I was the odd man out.  Blood was always thicker than water in our friendship.  At the time it made me cry many a time, but I now see it was a trait that is true and they are fortunate for their sharing of that bond.

From the time I received my first two wheeled bicycle and could now "cruise" our rural neighborhood, I lived on the road, and often as not found myself at my best friend's house.  We were country kids, so lived outside in the summer months and when the months became hot and sweltering whatever shade tree would give us some relief is where we plopped.  I learned early on that my friend's were Catholic, a rather exotic and foreign religion to me coming from the land of the German Lutheran.  The saying of the rosary at bedtime fascinated me, and even more was the wonderful concept of meatless Fridays.  To a little girl who loved fish sticks and shrimp, having those every Friday night was almost as good as Thanksgiving dinner once a week.  I would finagle my way down there virtually every summer Friday, around supper time.  Yes, we called the evening meal, supper.  We were rural and the big meal was always midday and was called dinner.  If I were very lucky there would be a few leftover fish sticks or breaded shrimp.  Helen would smile and tell me to clean up the leftovers, and I most happily did.  I thought I was being very cagey, but I am sure she saw right through my me, and probably smiled and thought what a pest I was.

Betty and Marlene's parents and my parents and the neighbors down the road, the Graf's, (parents of all boys, so my brother's best friends), were the neighborhood group.  At one time we all lived on farms with dairy cows, so the dads all milked twice a day.  Our excursions for fun were day trips in the summers to Crystal Lake and Stu's Beach, Sanford Lake, and big time trips like the memorable Detroit Zoo trip, forever frozen in a snapshot of the group, standing by an open car door.  Our parents played cards together, went to movies together, and had summer neighbor hood parties and holiday parties for the grownups.  We were the country edition of suburban living in the 1960's.  Our mom's all got their ear's pierced one day and later we girls had ours done by neighbor Joyce, who was a nurse and knew how to do it, a cube of ice and a sterilized sewing needle.  One day when I was about seven or eight our mom's came home from an afternoon home hair day, platinum blondes.  I still remember how shocked I was to see my brown haired mom suddenly this Marilyn Monroe wannabe.  It was an experiment that didn't really take for my mom anyway, who went back to her brown hair at some point but gradually entered the world of Miss Cairol and lighter hair. 

I will most remember Helen for her, (to me), famous kolache.  Kolache is a wonderful Czech pastry, made either in small crescent bundles or Helen's preferred way, a long jelly roll type treat, sliced in differeing thicknesses.  There were generally two kinds, poppy seed and nuts in an almond and brown sugar paste as filling.  I preferred the nuts kind.  Helen was of German descent but Jimmy was Czech and I am sure somewhere in her early marriage she learned to make this treat.  She usually sent down a kolache or two at Christmas time and I grew to look forward to those melt in your mouth treats.  My mom tried to make them one year and though Mom was an excellent baker, she couldn't achieve that flaky dough surrounding the yummy filling.

We grew up and went our separate ways.  Though Marlene and Betty stayed within the state, neither lived really close and as we had our own families, it became increasingly hard to get together as time here was spent with their parents.  Marlene and Betty both worked full time and I didn't and right or wrong, it was kind of a dividing line, at least in my mind, of the divergent paths we took.  About ten years ago Helen and Jim moved to a condo in Thomas Twp.  They sold the farm a few years later and emptied the house.  I saw Marlene for the first time in years as she and her husband helped them clean out and sell what they didn't need from the family farmhouse, Jimmy had grown up in. 

We were infrequent correspondents.  With email making catch up so easy and accessible, we didn't.  I don't know why but we didn't.  Sporadic Christmas and birthday cards.  When Dad passed away Marlene and Betty came for the viewing and vowed we would keep in touch, but we really didn't.  After that time, I would see Helen and Jimmy in the big superstore by their condo.  The joke was that in the last years, Jimmy went three times a day, just to see people he knew and talk. 

Helen was never famous, was never known for her superb cooking, gardening or housekeeping, though she was as good at all three as any country woman of her time.  She loved her girls and bragged about her grand kids when I would see her in the later years.  They bought a cottage on Torch Lake for their 25th wedding anniversary and until the last years spent most of their summers there. 

The country neighborhood, I grew up in slowly lost ground.  Neighbors moving away, but most just passing from this earth as that lively group I grew up knowing was no more.  Now Mom is the only one left, still on the family farm.  Sad, but that is the way of it.

The history of Fremont Twp and the Nelson Road area is that it was settled by seven Scotch-Irish families.  Later German and Czech immigrants came to farm on lands adjacent.  When I was a child the Scotch-Irish who founded the little Catholic church by my parent's place, called Guardian Angels, were nothing but names of old places.  McPhee, McCormick, and McDonald, were a couple of old women and some home places.  All are gone now, the farmhouses gone and the families moved away.  Guardian Angel church was shut down two decades ago and sold finally a few years back.  The Czech and German people of my parent's generation are slowly disappearing.  It is the way and the cycle of time.  We are here and we are gone. 

If we are lucky we are remembered even if its for Helen's kolache or the fond memories of jumping off Bill Graf's broad shoulders when I was a little girl to dive in to a cold lake.  It was my dad filling up a pick up truck bed with giggling kids and taking us to a community pool in a town, seven miles away for a summer afternoon of swimming.  It was summer evenings watching home movies or projector slides in a back yard with a big sheet hung for a screen.  Tables laden with food from a potluck.  Kids darting in and out, playing "Bloody Murder" and hide and seek, statue tag, and pick up ball games. Grownups playing cards and sitting around laughing and talking.  If we are fortunate we have those oh-so wonderful memories...

I said goodby to Helen today.  Alzheimer's had robbed her of recognition of any of us and sickness had taken her body.  Her girls told me she went quickly in the end and we all know it was a blessing.  But when our parents and friends parents leave us, our memories go with them.  Our kids will never know those things we smile about and fill our eyes with tears.  Gentle memories....Goodbye Helen.

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