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Looking After Helen, a Christmas Story

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My friend John A. wrote this. He often sends out stories like this.  He has a wonderful point of view on life in the very small, very southern town we both grew up in. I’ve known John A. all my life. (And I call him “John A.”) In fact, I’ve known everyone in this story all my life.

Miss Rowland taught me how to sew when I was a little girl. She also taught me Bible verses in Spanish. I’ve known John A’s older brother Tom since forever. The Chief of Police “Simp” was good friends with my daddy til the day my daddy died. Lori still helps me with my banking. And Aunt Connie and Uncle Knud have known me and loved me since before I arrived on this earth.

So I want to share this story with you because I think it is so wonderfully told. I also want to give you a glimpse at the place “from whence I came”. This is the world that birthed me. These are the people who shaped my young life.

And I wouldn’t trade any of them for anything.

And so……

Looking After Helen, A Christmas Story

Helen Rowland would have been 93 last week. I think about Helen, sometimes.  When I pass her house on Bruner Avenue I think about her. I think about Helen a lot in December.  I probably wouldn’t give her a second thought if we hadn’t found Helen dead in her house, two Decembers ago.

I got a phone call at my office, late afternoon on December 2, 2008. It was Police Chief Simpson.
“John, this is Simp”,He said. “Don’t some of your people look after Miss Helen Rowland?”
“That would be my Aunt Connie and Uncle Knud, Chief. They look after Miss Helen, and so does Lorie at the Bank, and few others.”
“Well, Lorie and me are down here at her house. She won’t answer the door. You think one of ya’ll could come down here and see if she’ll answer?”, Chief Simp asked.
“I guess so, I’ll try to get a hold of my Aunt, too. Helen might have gone off somewhere, Chief, or she might not want to answer her door. She does that, you know.” I replied.
I called my Aunt and left a message. My brother, Tom, and I drove to Helen’s house.

Helen lived in Evergreen most of her life. She was college educated, creative, and articulate. She could play the guitar and violin. Early photos show that she was a very attractive young woman. She lived with her parents until they died.  There was talk of a man, and a relationship that went wrong, and her attempted suicide.

Circumstances, or maybe something organic, had made Helen crazy. She was not dangerous crazy, but she was unpredictable. There were periods of paranoia, and Helen was an obsessive hoarder. She collected mountains of junk from which to make things.  Her white hair, even as an old woman,  was worn in a 1940s “Veronica Lake victory roll” style. She dressed in blouses and long dresses she sewed. In warm weather she wore sandals fashioned out of clorox bottles and pipe cleaners. Helen had a bed, but slept on an old door set between two chairs.

Helen would disappear from Evergreen for periods. Her trips, and odd appearance made some call her “Gypsy”. Children called her “The Turtle Lady”. Helen would catch box turtles.  She’d sewed costumes and created characters for the turtles. She entertained children, and adults, with little turtle tableaus.  Helen did errands on her bicycle, with her long dress, long white hair, and a straw hat. Some people called Miss Helen “The Bicycle Lady”.

Helen grew crazier as she got older. There were only a few people whom she would allow to look after her. Whatever her rationale, she was good at picking her close friends. She trusted Lorie, who works at the Bank of Evergreen, to help her with money matters.  Lorie, and her husband, Mike, lived close. They would check on Helen every few days.

Helen loved my Aunt Connie and Uncle Knud. Connie and Knud, in their late eighties, are substantive, genteel, and dignified people.  Their involvement with a difficult, mentally ill old woman might seem incongruous.  Yet, they spent time with her, bought things she needed, and even drove her to neighboring towns to buy used guitars and violins. My Uncle, to cheer Helen, once pretended to play a ukulele while  she played violin and sang.

Helen could be difficult. She got mad at Connie and Knud for buying her a small, much needed refrigerator. It was black. She wanted a white one. They had it painted white so she would use it. They tried to get Helen to eat better. The last few years of her life she consumed mostly Hershey bars and milk.   It would have been easier leave Helen to social workers. Connie, Knud, Lorie, and few others maintained their involvement with Helen for many years.

Tom and I pulled up to Helens house.  The  tiny stucco cottage was about  25 feet by 20 feet. Chief Simpson and Lorie were already there. Tom and I weren’t sure why we were there, except  as proxies for our Aunt and Uncle. Tom and I knocked and yelled through the door for Helen. She didn’t answer for us, either. We were afraid to kick the door in, in case Helen was simply refusing to come out.

Aunt Connie arrived about rabbit dark. She called out to Helen. There was no reply. Aunt Connie said she had a bad feeling. She told us we needed to try to go in through a window.

I had a crowbar. The Chief and I  pried open her side window.  We stuck our heads through the window to call out to Helen. We knew instantly, from the odor, that Helen was inside, somewhere, dead. The Chief went through the window, found Helen’s body, and yelled for somebody to call the coroner and the funeral home. Chief Simp unlocked Helens door and came out. He said she’d been dead a couple of days. “Her fists and arms are all drawed up tight on her, like maybe she had a heart attack”, He said. All we could see was the corridor between giant stacks of debris she’d collected over the years. Past the entrance was blackness.

We all got quiet. Nobody knew what to say. Lorie started crying.  Connie put her arms around Lorie and said,” you cry all you need to, Lorie. Its sad. You cry for me some,too.  At my age the tears don’t come as easily as they used to”.

The contents of Helens home and back house would fill 9 dumpsters. It yielded dozens of new bibles, still in their shipping boxes, old bibles with each reading carefully dated, newspapers dating back 40 years, and tons of junk. There were several thousand dollars stuffed into nooks and crannies, and decades  of Helen’s obsessive daily journals written in shorthand. Only a few things were salvaged, or given away. The rest, including her journals, got buried in a dump.  The old houses are still there, and the metal sign that says “Rowland”. Somebody will buy the lot and push down Helen’s house.

Helen was buried next to her parents.  The preacher who performed the service had never met Helen.

About a dozen people showed up. Included were a couple of neighbors, a nephew from far away, and Helen’s friends that looked after her.

Most of the physical evidence of Helen’s existence is gone, or will be, soon. What remains are some remnants of a true goodness a few people quietly gave to a lonely, difficult, crazy old woman. The remnants can be saved, and put together to make something….

Merry Christmas, J.A.N.
December 12, 2010

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