She could be stubborn. She could be extremely unkind. In truth, she could be downright insufferable. She was Helen, and she was my grandmother. In my lifetime, there are few people I have loved the way I loved her.
During the year I lived with her, she would often sing the Helen song. I can still see her-with a very mischievous glint in her eye as she warbled like a tipsy sparrow:
“Oh Hel-Oh Hel…” challenging me with a look that dared me to be shocked at her language.
Her acidic tongue was legendary, and nothing escaped her notice. I remember my first day of classes at Oregon State. I’d dressed up a bit, and as I walked past her to the door, she spied that I had put on lipstick. “You been eating beets?” she casually inquired.
“Oh Helen please be mine.”
“Your feat, Your feat…”
The local Lutheran minister was often the target of her barbs. When the poor man would visit, it was like watching a cat play with a mouse. Helen was clearly in her element. The minister, a soft spoken kindly man, refused to say anything negative as Helen fired away-voicing her critical opinions on a variety of subjects. That year that I lived with her, he visited several times, and I admired him for it. He was either very brave, or had an exceptional commitment to his duty as a man of God, because the same fate awaited him every time. Though she often told me she was going to tell him to buy a new suit, because his current one looked the worse for wear, thankfully she never followed through. ( The minister and his family were extremely poor.)
“Your features are divine.”
“I swear, I swear…”
The thing about my grandma, was that despite her ability to be such a pill, she was, when all was said and done, truly a sweetheart. I have many happy memories of my time living under her roof. One of my favorites is how at night, as each of us lay in bed in our own rooms- we would talk back and forth like the best of friends- before finally getting drowsy. She would call out “Good night Valerie. I love you,” And I would answer “I love you too grandma.”
I’ve thought about this. My grandmother did not have any easy life, and I think she was a little bitter about it. (Well ok, “little” may be an understatement.) From the time she was a child-through her years as a young woman and later in her married life, the road she was fated to travel was a hard one. She was often in circumstances-during the Great Depression, for instance-that I can’t even begin to imagine. And by the time she was an elderly woman-she just had to get her bitterness off her chest. I think it was her way of getting some recognition, at last, for the trials that she’d been given. But at the same time, she had a great empathy for those also struggling along in life. As with the minister, she knew what lines should not be crossed. She was infuriating, but harmless. The sum total of who she was caused me to feel fiercely protective of her-even when she didn’t seem to deserve it.
“I swear I will be true.”
“Oh dam, Oh dam…”
Her Helen-ness was never more apparent than the time she accused me of taking the rubber sealing ring from her blender. “Why?” I asked her “What possible reason would I have for doing that?”
As we sat down to dinner that night-I noticed bits of silver colored rubber among the bread crumb topping that crowned the buttered noodles. I didn’t have the heart to tell her. I just ate very carefully…
“Oh damsel, I love you.”
I miss you, and now more than ever-I need you.
I still get a kick out this poem she wrote once while visiting my family-I guess I was a messy kid:)