To Miss Helen, With Appreciation

Miss HelenMissing Miss: I’m already missing Miss Helen. For those who haven’t heard, my mother passed away a week ago last Friday, six days after her 87th birthday. She left us quietly and seemingly painlessly, at home, in her own bed. This was important to her, and a mixed blessing to us. Of course we’re very sad she’s left us. But she did not want to leave the home in which I grew up–a home into which she moved as a young wife and new mother when the house was new, in 1953. We were increasingly concerned for her living there alone. My sister Colleen and my cousin Cathy had been doing a stellar job taking care of her there (thank you both!), but it was becoming clear that a few stop-ins a day were no longer going to be enough to ensure her safe care. In typical Miss Helen fashion, she took the matter into her own hands, and saw to it that we did not have to worry. Strong-willed and independent to the end.

Quite a few people know I refer to my mom as Miss Helen. But I’m not sure how many know the origin of the moniker. You see, she was a remarkably capable retail manager, for a fashion apparel chain called Gantos. All of Gantos’ female employees wore name tags that identified them as “Miss.” For a brief time, she was my boss there, when I was a teen and became the morning maintenance man. Working in four locations, I stayed with Gantos through my college years, and with thanks to Miss Helen, the Gantos location near the MSU campus is where I met my wife. Hence, calling her “Miss Helen” is a nod to her as a competent, take-charge leader; a role model; a source of discipline, determination, and good taste.

Formative Foundation: I lost a lot when I lost my mom. Because of her I: love the beach, know how to cook and clean and do laundry, understand that the world owes me nothing, and that anything worth having is worth the work required to achieve it.  And because this is a writing blog, perhaps most importantly to this aspect ofThe formative novels my life, I am grateful to say that through her came my love of reading. And if I hadn’t become a reader, I certainly wouldn’t have aspired to write. When I left the house where I grew up after the funeral services, I only took a few mementos: a dozen or so pictures and an armload of books. These were books of hers that I know were formative to my writing journey. They are dog-eared and worn. But to me they are treasures.

My cousin Jim, a Methodist minister, performed the funeral services, and beforehand he asked my siblings and I for our recollections and impressions. As you will see if you read on, I am no poet, but this tribute to my mom just sort of flowed out of me before I met with Jim. I’m not sure it’ll translate well for those who didn’t know her, but since many who attended the service asked me for a copy, and I’m not sure who all I promised to send it to, I thought I’d share it here.

To Miss Helen

Bright of eye, a smile so wry, from under thumb but ready

A mate to suit, an anchor root; quiet, kind and steady

With rolled up sleeves and dirty knees, they build a sturdy nest

To family life, to mom and wife, Jane Wyatt knows what’s best

Through frugal years no time for fears, the race is with the rat

But apt our dress, no more—no less, “Oh, you’re not wearing that!”

The homework’s done before our fun, with sass best left unsaid

We claim done chores to head outdoors, “You swept under the bed?”

When two leave home, go out to roam, a ranch becomes a cage

The fresh-faced beauty hits midlife and comes to fear old age

How Stepford, Steel, and valley’s dolls made Cosmo’s ways seem festive

The Feminine Mystique revealed a prism for the restive

Lest we forget the day’s dictate, a woman’s job was flaunting

But out she strove onto a stage, defying dogma daunting

She swiftly found her suited role, purveyor of high fashion

And even quicker did she rise, with wits and guts and passion

As for me, her lessons stuck; I’m clean, I cook, I strive

I’ve made enough mistakes to claim, it’s good to be alive

To Mom I’m grateful for so much, beyond the rent at State

Beyond my life, her greatest gift: my longing to create

She opened up a doorway to a place where I’m unbound

Where Pillars of the Earth were sought, and Far Pavilions found

It seems she never understood her role inside my work

I pray that now she clearly sees this writing gig’s no quirk

If I could send an ending note to reach her up above

I’d let her know she lives on still, there is no end to love

I’d say to her, “Your task is done; we’re clean and try our best,”

I’d tell Miss Helen, “Job well-done. And now it’s time to rest…”

Harbor Springs Porch-Sitters (68 or 69)

Thanks, Mom. For everything. Love you, miss you. Be at peace. Till we meet again. 

38 comments on “To Miss Helen, With Appreciation

  1. I am so sorry, Vaughn. Your mom sounds like a wonderful person. You wrote a lovely tribute to her.

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  2. A lovely tribute to Miss Helen, V. I wish I’d known her; she sounds like Good People.

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  3. I’m so sorry for your loss, Vaughn. Her legacy lives on in you. May her fire burn bright.

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  4. What a lovely, gracious tribute to your mom. Miss Helen sounded like one-of-a-kind. Prayers to you as you grieve this incredible loss.

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    • One-of-a-kind is very apt, Marcy. I grew up on the kind of street where a big gang of kids played. Till the street lights came on, our domain was a huge chunk of suburban real estate. A bunch of those kids (no longer) showed up at the memorial visitation, and all recalled her as strict but fair, and lady-like. But also a pioneer. This was the early seventies, and she was the first mom to get her own car, and to go out and get a job. Pretty brave, I’d say. Thanks for your kind thoughts and prayers!

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      • Wow, Vaughn. You’ve made me an official member of the Miss Helen fan club. How wonderful (but not surprising) that so many of your neighborhood buddies showed up for the visitation. I want to say what a lucky guy you are to have had a mom like her, but I believe, you’re well aware of that fact. Blessings…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. davidprosser says:

    I’m truly sorry for your loss but I’m glad you have so many positive memories to carry with you. I’m also glad she was able to stay in the home she loved until the end. Your tribute was wonderful.

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  6. deedetarsio says:

    So sorry to hear this, Vaughn:( Your tribute to your mom is SO lovely!! Sending you good thoughts!

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  7. I am so sorry for your loss Vaughn. How wonderful that she was allowed to live out her life as she wished and then died in the home she loved. This will bring all of you much peace as your own life and story continues.

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  8. I think I see the seed for your love of warrior women, V. Miss Helen surely knew the meaning of being brave. This is a remarkable tribute to a remarkable human being. My thoughts are with you and your family.

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    • Yea, verily, she was a warrior woman. And in more ways than one, her life and influence led me to another. I think she understood that Mo is a tribute to her example. Good point, Tonia! Thank you so much!

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      • sheilaklewis says:

        so so sorry, Vaughn. The loss of a parent is big, and take time to be with her and the process and expect to feel her presence, weirdly, and with all the mix of emotions. Keep writing and see what comes.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. JBM says:

    Vaughn–Beautiful tribute to your mom xoxo

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  10. thea says:

    A mom couldn’t wish for kinder, better words of glory than that, Vaughn. My deepest sympathies to you and your family. xo t

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    • I wish you two could’ve met, Thea. She was strict, and could be perceived as a bit formal, at first. But she really loved to laugh. I remember times when she would scowl or scold me for “having a smart mouth.” But I’d occasionally overhear her, with unmistakable pride, say that I “have a pretty quick wit.”

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  11. Jan O'Hara says:

    Aw, hugs, V. I can see the resemblance. She lives on through you and, someday, your writing. Am holding you in my thoughts.

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  12. Wonderful memories are blessings. I’m so sorry for your loss, Vaughn.

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  13. vpchandler says:

    What a lovely tribute. It sounds like she was strong, capable, and loving. No wonder you write about such women. 🙂

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  14. Nicole L. Bates says:

    Vaughn, I am so sorry for your loss. Your mom sounds like an amazing woman and this is a beautiful tribute to her. My thoughts will be with you and your family.

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    • Thanks so much for taking the time to let me know, Nicole. Hope you all are well and thriving through the depths of winter. Wish we could’ve gotten up there this year. It’s always so lovely. By the way, the bottom picture of my mom and I was taken in Harbor Springs, on the porch of the cottage in Roaring Brook.

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  15. Vaughn, This is such a wonderful tribute. My heart goes out to you. I know the feeling. The world shifts a little when we lose our mothers, but their wisdom and grace take root and live on in us. At least, that’s what I like to believe.

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    • What a lovely sentiment, Christi. And only by the recognition of that wisdom and grace can we strive to embody what is, indeed, rooted within us through their example. That’s really heartening to me today. Thank you, my friend.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Condolences, Vaughn. This is a wonderful rememberance of your mother. Thank you so much for sharing such a private moment.

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  17. katmagendie says:

    oh my dear Vaughn — hugging you

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