Monday, June 4, 2012


Shopping downtown with mom when we were kids meant running into lots of her old acquaintances.

We balanced first on one foot then another. We peered into the glass store fronts. It was all something amusing to do while the catching up went on.

These folks who hailed mom with obvious pleasure were mostly strangers by our reckoning. 

They weren't neighbors or people from church or parents of classmates. We were continually amazed at mom's connections beyond our own small ordered world.

The sidewalk visits were largely with rural neighbors from mom's growing up years. They served as clues to her country life before we came along.

The surprised and warm expressions of greeting as they met at the traffic light crossings or in the grocery stores told us good times and friendships were being remembered. 

Most of these former neighbors came regularly into town to shop. It made main street an ongoing reunion center. 

One visit I recall took place at a grocery store which we shopped along with Piggly Wiggly and Red Owl. This time it was I who did the noticing. The person, her back to me, looked familiar. It was Helen. She was a relative.

I was maybe eight or nine at the time. I had moved close to the doors away from mom in the checkout line. I was waiting for the cashier to finish ringing up our groceries.

Helen turned from looking out the big plate glass window with its view of the street. I went  to say hello.

She was a cousin of my grandpa but with an age spread that made her several years younger than him. She was the chief phone operator at the phone company in town. Possibly she was retired or edging to retirement age.

By her stance I took it she was waiting too. Perhaps she had called for a taxi with her Saturday shopping done. She didn't own a car or drive.

I didn't know Helen well but my cordiality towards her was based on my mom's. She was gracious to all and remembered family ties. Family relationships were respected and kept track of as best as busy lives allowed.

Seeing the two of us together mom came over, probably bringing with her the young man who helped carry groceries to the car.

They greeted one another with the pleasure that comes with running into someone you're happy to see without the trouble of making plans to do so.

Helen reenters my memory a few years later. I was in high school. I was researching the Norwegian side of our family to put a family tree together.

Helen provided dates and contacts for her branch of the family. As things often happen we started to stay more in touch.

For some time after that Helen, mom and I met for lunch at Helen's favorite  restaurant. We didn't do it often but there was a nice rhythm to it.

The pie which finished the meal was the highlight for Helen. You could see she waited for the pie. The choosing, ordering and delivery of the slices of pie to our table made the luncheon secondary to the finale.

The restaurant prepared its pies and they were not to be missed. As I recall cream pies were Helen's favorites.

The custard fillings were rich with milk and eggs. Meringue toppings were works of art perfected by the heightening effects of cream of tartar and many beaten egg whites.

Living frugally, dressing impeccably, Helen was the classic unmarried woman of a certain age if you asked me then.

I didn't wonder if she ever had a beau or missed or did not miss being married. When young you mostly accept the person you see. 

Your experience hasn't taken you that far to wonder that widely. You question life at sixteen but not necessarily the workings of individuals.

Some might have described Helen as a reticent soul who slipped quietly across the stage. She performed excellently at her job, kept up her lovely home, was a loyal sister and aunt, was upright, minded her own business and was generous where she gave.

These are all decent ways to be remembered. To it can be added that she had a soft heart for young people including her nephews, nieces and it appears - me.

June 4 is the day Helen was born. The date entered my brain, a bear trap for data like this, when compiling my grandpa's family history. After that birthday cards were sent to Helen on her day.

Growing up I didn't know Helen well but I liked her. The friendliness stemmed partially from family ties. It's also my agreeable ability to like anyone who's friendly to me.

It can't be said Helen is better known for this annual keeping of her birthday. It occurs to me, however, that the years have taught something.

Like the tiered cakes displayed with the other desserts in the glass pie stand (an important fixture in the restaurant scheme of things), I once thought getting through the levels of a person was important for the insight into them.

It can help but isn't necessary I come to realize. My oneness with Helen rests lightly but completely with no further facts or information on her to appear.

In all this time I haven't learned whether she traveled, read for improvement, gardened, sang in the church choir, deplored the hippie movement or what her politics might have been. 

It's water over the dam as far as it concerns me. It wouldn't change an iota the closeness I feel for her who in reality I knew so little.

Originally the friendship was instinctive. Now I recognize the truth is that we were simply lucky. 

One of us starting out, the other not over the finish line but certainly a distance contender, we were put in positions to share some mutually enjoyed time together.

We both took away a lasting impression of liking and acceptance. We bonded over lunch but discovered each other in a polite exchange of grocery store hellos.

Happy June 4, Happy Birthday Helen.

Ro Giencke - June 4, 2012

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