Valentine’s Day morning found B and I in North Adams MA to attend the funeral of my aunt Helen. We were there not only to pay our own respects but also as representatives of the rest of my family, especially my parents who are not up to extended cold-weather car trips any more.
The funeral was small, mostly nieces and nephews with their spouses. I especially wanted to thank Marcia and Carl, who are related through Helen’s husband Stewart, who died several years ago, as they had been the ones who had visited and run errands for Helen and Stewart through over ten years in the nursing home. My mom and Marcia often spoke by phone, so that my parents could keep up with news of Helen, especially after she couldn’t talk to my dad on the phone herself.
Helen’s longtime Baptist minister led the service, with my cousin Cairn giving the eulogy. I read a Bible passage, 1 Corinthians 13, which was a favorite of both Helen’s and mine. Cairn thoughtfully gave me Helen’s personal Bible, given to her almost eighty years ago in Sunday school, her name embossed in gold on the black leather cover, with dried flowers, ribbons, prayer cards, a church bulletin, bookmarks, and copies of her parents’ obituaries tucked among the pages. There were old photos on display in the funeral home and one of her stenographer’s notebooks, showing her skill at the now-lost art of shorthand.
Most of the remembrances of Helen were from her younger days as the eldest of seven children and later as a devoted spouse, watchful aunt, and super-efficient and respected executive secretary, the time period that I remember. We lived about twenty miles away and would often visit at their home on the weekends. I remember playing with my sisters in their large backyard and attending holiday parties that Helen loved to host. Helen would often compose little poems for special occasions and liked to have people contribute to celebrations. I remember one Christmas party when we were each to bring something for the tree and my older sister made oil of wintergreen in the school chemistry lab as her offering.
Helen’s last decade-plus was very different, as she developed Alzheimer’s. While some things stayed constant until very nearly the end – her love of coffee, her joy in attending and singing at church services, her fondness for dolls and stuffed animals – others were permanently lost. In many ways, the woman that we all knew has been gone much longer than the days since her death earlier this month.
Born in 1922, Helen was the eldest of seven. My father, who turns 90 in a few weeks, was the third child and first son in the family. Of the four children who lived past the age of 70, my father is the only one not to have succumbed to Alzheimer’s, as their father had. My dad’s only surviving sibling is his youngest brother who is currently living in a nursing home in CT. My dad is the only one left who can recall the old family lore. I’ve been asked with such strong family history how my father has been spared; everyone always said that he took after his mother’s side of the family and perhaps that is what saved him from developing Alzheimer’s.
Despite the cold and snowy New England winter, we were able to bring Helen to the cemetery after the service where she is now resting beside her husband. It wasn’t until we arrived there and saw the headstone that I remembered she will also be resting beside her youngest sibling – and Cairn’s mother – Bev, who we lost decades ago to eclampsia. Bev was born on Helen’s 17th birthday and now the oldest and the youngest are finally reunited.