"...Though I know I'll never lose affection,
For people and things that went before,
I know I'll often stop and think about them,
In my life I love them all..."
Last Thursday I wr0te a piece, "It feels like it might be hope," describing the impact a friend's mother had made on my life following Dad's sudden passing just after my graduation from high school. A time when my life changed in the breadth of a heartbeat.
At the end of that post, I promised to tell about how her kindness, actually altered the course of my life, at the end of that summer, and why, I continue "In My Life," to often stop and think about her.
Summer was coming to a close, and as the golden light of an early August evening began to soften as we moved towards autumn, my anxiety about the future grew. What would I do after the park closed on Labor Day and Helen no longer needed an assistant? How would I pay rent, and help buy school supplies and new shoes for my siblings...much less pay for heating fuel as winter approached? Would I have to go back to waitressing full-time, in addition to another minimum wage job. How could I work three jobs, when worrying about putting food on the table for 9 people kept me awake, tossing and turning, night after night?
One morning I came into the coffee-perfumed office at the State Park, and found a note from Helen, "let's talk at lunchtime." This was surprising. Helen was usually the first person to sweep me out of the office at lunchtime so that I could enjoy an hour on the beach with my friends. She defended my "down time" like a mother tiger. For her to assume that hour for herself was surprising. I wondered what I'd done wrong. I'd planned to ask her, but our morning was full of tasks, leaving little time for talking. The most I could do was slip a note on her desk to let her know that I would love to have lunch together.
At noon she grabbed her purse, my hand, and on the way out the door, told the Head Ranger that he would have to cover the office for the next hour, as "the girls" were going to lunch. He didn't argue...no one argued with Helen. She was so kind that we'd all do just about anything for her, and steely enough, that we yielded to her dictums with absolute trust.
Once out the door and driving down the road away from the office, we were like girlfriends playing hooky. Something her daughter and I had done a time or two our senior year....and paid a high price for when our parents discovered our adventure. Once we were seated at the counter of our favorite deli, we ordered our salads and gratefully accepted two icy glasses of TAB before Helen launched into her reason for taking me to lunch. She swiveled her red vinyl and chrome stool in my direction, and with the same mother tiger fierceness in her eyes I'd seen before, she squared her shoulders ready to "take no prisoners". Then she took a deep breath, and in an uninterrupted stream of loving imperatives, she laid out her plan for the next chapter in my life. There was no question about whether I would take her advice and she knew it. She'd already proven that her wisdom, love, and intuition were impeccable when it came to helping me figure out the summer. I had only to listen and agree to do my part when it came to the next season. I think she must have known that, my mom was so busy with caring for seven school-age children, and that I was starving for direction and guidance. And like a wonderful aunt who was only trying to help her widowed "sister," she came with a banquet.
As my best friend's mother, Helen knew that I'd walked away from a full-ride scholarship to my "university of choice" after Dad's passing, and she knew that my future as the oldest child, would require at least two full-time jobs in order to pay the rent, and feed our family. So she had a plan.
I would take the State civil service test for clerical and administrative jobs. Once I learned my scoring placement on the list, I would be able to look at the civil service jobs list of positions available throughout the state, and apply for jobs based on my placement.
She promised to help me through the entire process. She would drive me to the test in the state capital and wait for me to finish the three hour test. Once I learned where I placed, she would help me go over the job listings and weigh out my options. She believed in me. It made all the difference.
That next week she drove me to the test, waited with me, took me out to dinner afterwards, paced the office day-after-day as we waited for my scores, and encouraged me to "think positively."
When my scores placed me in the top one percentile on the list, I had my choice of any administrative job in the state. Helen was happier than I was. She had a plan. I would apply for a job at a state college or university where, as an employee, I would not only have benefits, could save in a state retirement program, but I would also be eligible for what we both knew was the real key to my hopes for the future....a college education. Under the state college/university system, I would be able to take a certain number of free college classes each term. And Helen had also learned that as long as I was signed up for at least one class, I could live in the dorm, thus having an authentic college social experience, as well as inexpensive, safe on campus housing.
Together, over coffee, we decided which jobs I would apply for, and then she helped me prepare for my interviews, decide what to wear, and which of the jobs...if offered...I would accept. My goodness, she was so optimistic.
But she was right. I was offered a job at a wonderful college. I would serve in the office of the Academic Vice President, an exciting, intellectually stimulating position. I was charged with coordinating elements of the faculty tenure, reappointment, and promotions process. And later, I would have the privilege of working with a noted scholar in the development of an extraordinary speakers' series. Everyday, I was surrounded by amazing thinkers, and I was encouraged to try my intellectual wings by remarkable educators and activists for social change. It was thrilling to walk across campus, to work, each day, attend classes after work, on one day have a student-based social event to drop in on, and on the next evening be invited to a faculty party or dinner gathering in "the city."
I was able to "have a life," while still being able to help support my family and provide for their needs. I was at a college that embraced and encouraged me to see myself as the vigorous thinker I was, and to be shepherded through the process of applying for college credits I may have earned through "prior life experience," and/or scholastic merit.
When I left that college to begin a teaching career, with a state institution for severely and profoundly handicapped children, I was such a different girl than the hopeless and despairing, but tough-it-out, child Helen had taken under her wing .
I loved teaching for a state-run institution, as it allowed me to give something back to the state that had given me so much hope for the future. Throughout my tenure with the institution, I was able to continue my education, begin graduate studies, receive my teaching certification, and work with children who taught me more about myself than I ever would have learned at any ivy league college or university. And it was Helen who helped me navigate each opportunity, decision, move, and success with grace. She was my friend...and an angel who never let me get away with giving up on myself or the power of hope.
"I know that I will never lose affection
for people and things that went before.
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love them all."
Helen was not a big church-goer. In fact, I don't remember ever hearing her talk about her religious convictions, or her church affiliation. Helen could have been Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu...or not affiliated with any religion at all...and it wouldn't have mattered one bit. She still gave me back my faith in goodness. I don't know how she could have made a bigger difference in someone's life. Her kindness gave me hope. Her generosity reminded me that there must have been a God, a benevolent higher power, a divine Father-Mother interceding in my life when the future looked bleak, and I didn't know where to turn.
I think Helen's example says it all. Her willingness to be aware of my heart, invest in my dreams, care about my life, be concerned about the demands being placed upon my young shoulders, and to want to make a difference for one young girl, changed my life forever.
thank you Helen...I often stop and think about you...alot...
Kate Robertson, CS