Remembering My Aunt Helen

When I was born and brought home from the hospital in a Volkswagen Bug that had no baby seat but was otherwise very reliable, my parents had no bassinet in which to place me.  My father suggested the floor, which he had recently refinished and was very proud of.  But Aunt Helen, my mother’s older sister and sole sibling, had a wiser suggestion.  “Put him in my laundry basket,” she said.  And so I was placed in the laundry basket, with perhaps a pair of socks supporting my fuzzy little head.

When I started forming words, my name for her was “Aunt Hen,” and Aunt Hen was always a part of my life.  She and my Uncle Joe lived in the next town over, and it to was their house that we went for those kinds of special occasions that require chips and dip.  At Christmas, there was an ornament of a man in a boot that Aunt Helen would hide in the tree, and the first of my brother and I to find it got an extra helping of candy canes.  At Easter, she filled her house with jellybeans, and I would stuff my pockets as if I had discovered an ancient treasure.  Whatever confusion I might have experienced as the child of an interfaith marriage, such confusion was swept away by large servings of pie.

I particularly remember the Fourth of July.  We would all sit in Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe’s backyard, and when their black Labrador retriever—first Max, and then Abercrombie—came by with a tail swishing this way and that, we would all hold on to our drinks and hamburgers lest they be swept to the deck where all dogs have a right of first refusal.

Aunt Helen had a funny way of putting things.  She was quick with the one-liners.  Whenever we attended a Jewish funeral, Aunt Helen used to say, “Okay everybody, let’s take a bet.  Meat or dairy?”  And when my mother was doing Christmas shopping and needed some gift ideas for Uncle Joe, Aunt Helen famously said, “Don’t buy him any more clothes.  He wears the same shit every day.”

Yes, Aunt Helen’s defining trait was her sense of humor.  When my mother was in middle school, Aunt Helen helped her study for an exam in American history that was going to test the various acts—the Navigation Acts, the Molasses Act, the Sugar Act, the Currency Act, the Stamp Act—that led to America declaring that it had a right to pass its own oppressive acts.  My mother was wearing ski pajamas during this study session, so Aunt Helen asked, “And when was the Ski Pajama Act enacted?”  Decades later, when yours truly was studying those same acts, my mother would ask me about the Ski Pajama Act, even though I had never heard of ski pajamas.

Aunt Helen was at her funniest when talking about the family.  She knew all the family gossip.  If this cousin wasn’t talking to that cousin, Aunt Helen always knew the gory details and we would all gather ‘round her like our ancestors once gathered around storytellers in the days before the E! channel.

Just because she was funny, however, did not mean Aunt Helen was a pushover.  She taught elementary school, and even outside the classroom there were still only two ways of doing things: her way, and her way without being told.  She liked to moderate the speed at which my Uncle Joe drove the car, saying, through clenched teeth, “SLOW…DOWN…JOE.”  Averaging about 35 m.p.h. on the Long Island Expressway, we knew we had to tell them to be places 3 hours ahead of time.

But they always made it.  Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe went to everything.

Even after diabetes confined her to a wheelchair, Aunt Helen was determined to attend every major event in everyone’s life, no matter how much she had to travel in a van or yell at my uncle.  She went to my college graduation.  She went to my law school graduation.  Even the morning of my wedding, in a hotel some 300 miles from her home in eastern Long Island, she passed out and had to be revived.  I knew nothing of this until months later, for at my wedding she was dressed up, and alert, and happy.

When she went on dialysis, I was worried that she wouldn’t be as funny as she had been.  But the moment I saw her those worries went away.  She didn’t talk about her illness at all, and instead would talk about the latest politician to momentarily forget about the existence of video cameras.  Of all the limitations her illness placed on her, it did not touch her mind, her voice, or her personality.  She was at all times—healthy, sick, standing, seated, lying in a hospital bed—a mixture of unconditional love and sharp wit.  She never let anything get in the way of seeing her family and friends.  And she never let anything get in the way of a laugh.

I remember visiting her in the hospital after she had both legs amputated.  She was sitting up in bed and asking me about how I was enjoying work.  When I told her about how the hours were long and that the partners were driving me crazy, she said to me, “Well, don’t let it get to you too much.  Make sure you have fun, too.”  And then she sent Uncle Joe and I out for some food in blatant violation of hospital rules.

Three weeks before my wedding anniversary this past May, my wife and I received a card from Aunt Helen, congratulating us on making it through yet another year without killing each other.  She was always very thoughtful like that, and I laughed at the time because I figured that she had just forgotten the exact date of our anniversary.  Why else would she be sending me a card that early?  I made a mental note to call her.

As it turned out, a few days later it was my Uncle Joe who was calling me, to tell me that Aunt Helen had passed away the night before.  My first thought was that I should have called her.  I guess I was too busy downloading the latest version of iTunes to find 10 minutes to talk to my aunt.  The guilt was terrible and I didn’t feel like eating that day.

But then I thought about what Aunt Helen would say.  “Don’t worry about me.  Enjoy yourself.  And eat.”  And I smiled, and knew that Aunt Hen would never really leave me.  And then I went and got a sandwich.

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25 Comments

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25 responses to “Remembering My Aunt Helen

  1. leekirs1

    Was Aunt Hen real, even? This seems every other line funny, every other line sad, but not horrendously sad. Your writing style was different on this one.

  2. She was as real as you or me. Yes, I had to write a bit differently – more in the style of a eulogy than whatever it is I usually do around here. I guess I should have warned everyone. Thanks for reading – for next time I expect a return to my usual nonsense.

  3. fishducky

    What a wonderful lady she was!!

  4. Great job on this entry!

    Reading this gave me a serious case of goosebumps because I was just talking to my mother TODAY, and saying that one of my next blog entries was going to be about my (great) Auntie Helen – she will be turning 94 years old this month and I wanted to do an entry for her birthday. How WEIRD is that?!

    Our Aunt Helens seem very similar to each other too – while mine still has all her limbs and is in reasonably good health, life beat the hell out of her in other ways. But she manages to maintain her awesome sense of humor, no matter what life throws at her. She can still drink people under the table, and she loves to flirt with younger men (at her age, who isn’t younger?). And when I’m with her, she makes me feel like I’m the most special and beautiful person on the planet – quite the ego boost.

    I think everyone should have an Aunt Helen…. if they don’t, I feel sorry for them.

    • Agreed. Thank you, and thank you for sharing the story of your Aunt Helen. It is a coincidence, and not only of name. For it always feels like a coincidence to have someone in your life who, without seeming to expect anything in return, makes you realize that you are special.

  5. Wow what a beautiful tribute to a remarkable lady. Thanks for sharing it. 🙂

  6. carolofthebells

    What Diana said! I really enjoyed this — more than that, actually: it painted a little more of the picture of who I need to become as I get older and older. Mark, I am not overly familiar with your blog yet, but this post was a gem.

  7. Such a nice tribute and very real. I have a feeling she would be honored. I have family members like that.

    Sometimes I think it’s good to vary the writing style. I go from one extreme to another, haha. Nice post.

  8. dad

    No one would have laughed harder than Aunt Helen. And then she would have told Uncle Joe to give you something to eat.

  9. Mark, this is a lovely tribute to a woman who shaped your life. May her memory be a blessing. I hope you saved that card. That is some kind of special.

  10. What a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing with us what you and your Aunt Helen shared. She sounds like the kind of person that every household party needs. Or the kind of person that makes every household a party. Loved the anecdotes and awed the gravity of your post. You’re definitely allowed to mix seriousness with humor. (You do it well!)

  11. My Uncle Joe read this post and asked that I leave this comment for him:

    On the day of our wedding, when your Aunt Helen and I were standing at the altar, and we were about to move in for the kiss, she whispered something in my ear.

    Years later, when we were making plans for our final resting place, we decided that we would be cremated, and that our ashes would be placed inside of a stone container, and that on the stone container would be an inscription. I asked Aunt Helen what she wanted inscribed, and she said, “Oh, I don’t know. Why don’t you find something? You’re better at that stuff than I am anyway.”

    So I looked and looked, pulling various quotes from Scripture and such. I read them all to Aunt Helen, and she said, “Joe, I hate to tell you, but I really don’t like any of these.” I said, “Okay. Well, what then?”

    And she said, “Do you remember what I said to you at our wedding, when we were at the altar?”
    “Yes,” I said, “of course I remember.”

    And she said, “That’s what I want.” And I thought about it for a second, and laughed, because that was just like your Aunt Helen. That was her sense of humor.

    And so, 42 years and 8 months after we were married, when we placed Aunt Helen’s ashes into the stone container that will one day contain my ashes as well, it was inscribed with the same words she whispered in my ear when we were standing at the altar:

    We’re in this together.

  12. Stephen Lavinio

    Mark That was a great rememberence to Aunt Helen!! You described her personality to a T! We loved it and will always remember her! Steve & Lauri Lavinio

  13. Joan and Frank Gatto

    We enjoyed hearing the stories of her life. We are cousins of Joe and Helen from Brooklyn and Hampton Bays and now Florida. We use to go to Montauk with her and Joe to barbeque at the state park. We always had a great time there when Frank would bring some of the italian food and expresso coffee. Helen loved that. I gave her credit for always having her yearly party in January. No matter how she felt or how the weather was the party went on. There was no stopping her.

    • Thank you so much, Joan and Frank, for stopping by and reading. I’m glad that you remember my Aunt Helen having fun no matter what. That’s how I best remember her, too. Mark

  14. Pat and dick Behrens

    Thank you so much for this lovely tribute of a GREAT lady. Helen and I taught 4th grade together in the same school and we were friends. Over the years she and Joe helped us welcome 2 daughters and became annual Autumn visitors when wemoved upsstate. Our girls have the best memories of those visits and the fun trips when Joe and Helen were here. Helen was a wonderful woman and is sorely missed by the Behrens clan. RIP dear friend. We will always remember you. Thank you, Mark.

    • You are so very welcome, Pat and Dick. She was one of the most important people in my life and while this tribute pales in comparison to what she did for me during life, I am glad that I was able to do it and bring back warm memories of how she touched people’s lives. I too sorely miss her. Mark

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