As I get older, I find myself thinking about things and people who have been an influence in the person I’ve become. One who stands out is my Aunt Helen.
Aunt Helen was my mother’s oldest sister, about 23 years older than my mom. She was the kind of aunt who always made us feel welcome, even though her house didn’t have many toys to play with or much for some little kids to do. Being so much older than our mom, her kids were grown and gone and the household toybox had long been cleaned out and throw away.
I never heard her say a bad word about anyone. The worst exclamation I ever heard her say was “oh shoot!” She was a devout Nazarene woman, wearing her hair in a bun and always in her uniform long dresses, something that looked out of place in the short skirt era of the 1960s but looked perfectly normal on Aunt Helen.
“Aunt Helen” was her entire name. It never occurred to us to refer to her as just “Helen” as we did with other aunts. It just wasn’t right. It wasn’t just a title of respect or an indication of relationship. It was just a part of who she was.
I was the oldest of six kids, so growing up was tough, financially. Aunt Helen wasn’t well off financially either. She and Uncle Pete lived on social security and whatever odds jobs Uncle Pete could pick up on the side, like lawn mowing and such.
I always loved the Thanksgivings that included the two of them, which were most Thanksgivings. It was like having another gramma. She had this fabulous way of making green beans with a bacon and onion combination that filled my whole being. When I opened my catering business, “Aunt Helen’s Green Beans” were on the menu and were a very popular item.
One Thanksgiving, she didn’t bring her beans. She brought spaghetti. I remember I was about fourteen, and being an arrogant, non-thinking teenager, I threw a fit because she didn’t bring “my” beans. I never stopped to think about this older couple who lived on social security. I never considered that Thanksgiving was at the end of the month. I never gave thought to the idea that she may have prepared whatever she had in the cabinet because they didn’t have money to go to the grocery.
No, I didn’t stop to think about any of that.
But Aunt Helen, in her way of never saying anything negative to anyone, who never intentionally made anyone feel bad, just leaned over and said, with a smile on her face and nothing but pure love in her voice, “Oh I thought I’d just do something different this year.”
But she never came without her famous green beans again. Each year after that, she’d walk in and say, “Debi, I brought your beans this year!” I loved her for it.
As I share the green bean story, that’s not the thing that makes me miss her more than anything. It was the life lesson she left with me when I was about fifteen. A simple statement that helped form part of who I am.
It was a bad winter. Our home was heated by a wood burning stove and we were out of wood. We were heating the house by turning on the oven and leaving the oven door open, the kitchen chairs in a semi-circle around the stove as we struggled to stay warm. The cabinets were bare. I don’t mean kind of empty. I mean bare. Not even the obligatory can of old baking powder hiding in a back corner. Empty.
Our parents were out and at about fifteen years old I was babysitting the five younger siblings. Aunt Helen pulls into our driveway, comes in the house and hands me a partial bag of potatoes, apologizing that she didn’t have any butter or anything to cook them in but she said to me:
“I don’t have much but I’ll share what I’ve got.”
It was only a bag of potatoes, and it was a partial bag at that. But it was much more than just one more meal for a group of poor kids. It was pure love from a woman who didn’t know any other way. It was sharing what she had when she didn’t have anything herself. It was caring about what someone else needed above what she might need.
Even though I was only 15 years old, these almost-forty years later, I’m still remembering that simple action of love, that simple action of giving, that simple action of caring. It is directly because of that simple act that I set a family Christmas tradition of not being allowed to walk past a Salvation Army bucket without putting something in. I taught my children that even if it’s the last two nickels in our pocket, we will “share what we’ve got” with someone who has less than we do. I’m happy to share that my daughter has taught her two children the same tradition.
So here’s my holiday tribute to Aunt Helen, a woman who lived a simple life and made a big difference without even knowing it.
I still miss her.