A Camellia for Helen


Helen: daughter, sister, wife, mother of 1, grandmother of 2, great-grandmother of 7…

We lost my cherished grandmother, ‘Babcia’ as we called her in Polish, the Friday before Easter. She was 94 years-old. Our hearts have been so very heavy with sorrow, it has been difficult to articulate the slew of emotions that come with grieving and loss, and the idea that someone you loved so fiercely could be removed from this earthly life you forged together. Each day begins with a prayer, thinking of her anew, wondering if she’s watching the world’s events unfold from behind the pearly gates, and most sincerely, hoping that she is at peace. She died on Good Friday, the day after the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I found comfort thinking that perhaps the pair of them were waiting in line together, just before Easter, sharing stories of their triumphs and their tribulations on this great earth.

Indeed, you don’t make it to your mid-90’s without your fair share of feistiness and spunk, and she had heaps of both. Beyond the bluster of a stylish, street savvy granny living autonomously in Manhattan was a strong, grounded woman with a head for practical knowledge and for common sense. At times, she was quite the character and her eccentricities and her humour always felt like a bit of whimsy and magic mixed together; she left a lasting and favourable impression with most everyone she met (except for the occasional cyclist pedalling recklessly down a New York City sidewalk —they were always met with a sharp reprimand!) “How we love your grandmother!” people would always say to us with a smile, and I would respond: “Yes, I’m sure you do! As do we!”

Babcia was exactly the sort of red lipstick-wearing grandmother we girls were meant to have. She stuffed our pockets with Hershey kisses and folded-up money, acted as an ally against our parents when we had been rather naughty kids, and kept us awake at night with the humdrum of her snoring (which cleverly insured that we’d be awake bright and early to cook pancakes with her on week-end mornings). Grandparents have a penchant for getting away with things that others cannot, and it deservedly comes with the territory.

She still sang me lullabies, even though I was living with her in my early twenties, and she would lend me her vintage dresses and sandals for work in the summers (which worked out nicely since physically we both tended to be on the shorter, bustier side with small feet). Babcia was a stubborn gal, but surprisingly open-minded philosophically. We had many a conversation about modern methods of birth control, homosexuality, the Catholic Church, American politics, reconciling with friends after a falling out, and finding a suitable husband.

I will miss: her dancing the Peabody (a kind of foxtrot she always demonstrated to the tunes of Glenn Miller, of course); the Chopin piano music (performed by Liberace) playing on her hi-fi as you entered her apartment; strolls down the avenue linked arm-in-arm; the taste and smell of her baked beans, ham and apple sauce; and the way she pulled and grasped at the hair on her wee (pin)head whenever she got frustrated or was at a loss for words. Her cursive penmanship is still some of the most beautiful handwriting I’ve seen (yes, a lost art, really), and I will cherish all the notes, intricate hand-knit items and treasures she bestowed upon me over the years, along with all the envelopes of comic strips and word searches she cut out of the newspaper and lovingly sent to me twice a month “for a chuckle” at university.

We were lucky to have been living in NYC when Alina and Finnlagh were younger, so now they too have many fond memories of her, eating pizza together on Sundays, going for strolls and playing at the park. We made a point of having baby Reed baptized there last year as well (even though we were still living in Texas), and we are so grateful that she was able to meet him and hold him in her arms. Four generations.

My husband, Grant, loved her as his own grandmother, and spent quite a bit of time getting to know her over the past decade. When we are missing her (which is in fact every new day that comes along now), he tells me to look at our children and at myself; he reminds me that her spirit lives on in all of us. From the uncanny way Alina loves to wear hats (especially to bed at night), to Finnlagh’s strong (and somewhat remarkable) faith in God, to the way Reed’s nose points at the tip…she is surely present.

To our beloved Babcia: we bid you farewell, for now. We will hold on to our remembrances of you and your stories, those unique moments we created together as a family over these many years. Time spent with loved ones, however scarce that can be sometimes, is a precious, immutable gift that is committed to memory —forever.





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