A Surrogate Mother Unlike Any Other

Photo NegativesGrowing up with Mary for a mother, I realized at a very young age that I was going to need some other role models. During the time we lived in Chicago, Aunt Olive filled that position. She made new clothes for me, took me shopping, arranged photo opportunities, and tried her best to teach me to emulate her manners. She was a gracious, kind woman from whom I learned quite a bit.

Once we moved to Taylorville, I began looking to my teachers for guidance. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan, lived right across the street from us in the Rainbow. As you may remember, I had attended six weeks of second grade when we moved to Taylorville in March. Mrs. Duncan would stop over and bring me extra work to try to help me catch up with my class since the stipulation was that I would repeat second grade if I could not keep up.

Luckily, by the end of the year, I was ready for third grade.

Unluckily, we were forced to move to an apartment one block from Dad’s law office and Mother’s favorite hell-hole bar.

Seedy dive barYes, the bar where she hung out was next door to my dad’s office.

Third grade was a trial since we were living in an apartment and our main entertainment was throwing dolls off the flat roof. Lindy and I would throw a doll over the edge and try to run to the bottom before the sound of the doll announced her arrival. Almost right away, we realized that one of us should be at the bottom to catch the tossed baby. We wrecked fewer dolls that way. Anyway, I can’t remember having anyone to look up to that year.

As a college student, the time came when I was introduced to my boyfriend’s mother. My boyfriend at the time was the future father of Taylor and, later, my first ex-husband. We were all going out for dinner to get to know each other, and as we left the house, my boyfriend (Taylor’s father-to-be and my ex-husband-to-be) started arguing about something with his mother, the wonderful Helen.

He is in many ways a good man, but he has always been a bit stubborn, prone to belaboring his points, and convinced that he is correct about all matters. Shockingly, our son appears to have inherited these same qualities from him. Funny how genetics work, isn’t it?

Any way, at that moment, as her twenty-something child labored ad nauseam to prove his point about God knows what, Helen turned to him and said

We’ll talk about this when we don’t have company.

GargoyleCan you imagine how that sounded to someone who had grown up with Mary? I thought it was the most gracious and classy thing I had ever heard. My own mother preferred to have an audience for her rants. Mother would have turned that conversation into a distinctly unpleasant and memorable moment of fireworks and histrionics.

Anyway, Helen became my role model and even though I was only married to her son for a few years, even after he and I divorced, she remained a trusted friend and adviser until the day of her death. Helen was adored not just by her family, but also by anyone else who knew her. How fortunate I was to have her in my life.

Helen helped other people whenever she could. She volunteered at the Catholic Worker House every Friday, and she took trips to deliver expired drugs to Third World countries. In the course of her life, she also traveled to the Soviet Union, other Third World countries, and even Cuba (a trip for which she had to apply for journalistic credentials due to the travel restrictions in place at the time). Such trips were not mere leisure for her; she enjoyed her time in each foreign land, but she performed acts of charity on each one and served as an informal ambassador for international relations and understanding.

While her husband was still alive, they sponsored and housed foreign exchange students from countries such as Guyana and Tanzania. Their graciousness in hosting people who had never experienced things that we too often take for granted (such as three meals a day) astounded their visitors.

Happy Family on the BeachYears later, after her death, one of the people she and her husband had sponsored spoke at her memorial service about the amazing impact that their hospitality and generosity had on him. With the material assistance and positive reinforcement they had provided to him while he was in his twenties, he went on later in life to become a renowned expert in the medical field. He viewed this vocation as something that Helen and her husband had inspired him to do.

Once I hosted a special birthday party for Helen at our favorite tea room. When my stepmother Beatrice spoke to her on the phone after the party, Beatrice said

I bet you’d rather have been folding blankets for Guatemala, wouldn’t you?

Helen agreed with her, not recognizing (or perhaps just not caring about) Beatrice’s sarcasm.

Once when Mother was visiting from California, she cornered Helen and asked her to go out to lunch with her. Helen told me about it and asked me to come along. Wow, I thought, even the amazing Helen – a strong woman who could handle almost anyone – was hesitant to take on Mary by herself! Helen said to me

What will we talk about?

and I had to confess I had no idea. In the end, the lunch came off without too many glitches and I think we talked mainly about their grandson Taylor, one of the few topics of conversation that had little risk of going horribly off the rails.

The week before my dad died, I phoned Helen to talk over the situation. She was so supportive and helpful. When my dad died on Friday night, Helen called about ten minutes after he was gone. She said

I just felt like something was wrong.

She was so in touch with the universe that she knew when to call.

Helen and I had many adventures. Once when she and I were driving back from Arizona, a trucker kept flashing his lights at us.

They do that to tell people that something is wrong with their car.  We better stop.

Helen said. I knew better, but we stopped, only to discover that the trucker was interested in “making new friends!”

That was Helen–she was a one of a kind person whom everyone just adored. I wish I could be more like her. Sometimes I will think “What would Helen do?” and even though she is no longer available for advice, I sometimes think I know what she would say.

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