Saturday, July 4, 2015

Helen Wilson - A Eulogy

My Granny, Helen L. Wilson, born Helen Lucille Dickson, in Red Cloud Nebraska on September 12, 1930 passed away July 24th. She was 84 years old. In her time here on earth she showed herself to be a very dynamic woman, traveling the world nearly sixty times while raising a family. 
On August 5, 1949, Granny married the love of her life, Tom Wilson, whom I call Grampy. In 1951 their first child, my Aunt Marsha, was born, followed in 1958 by my Dad, Tom Lee Jr. 
In 1964 Granny and Grampy purchased a ranch outside Ft. Laramie, Wyoming. Throughout the family's world travels over the following decades this would serve as a beacon of home, though it would take many years to build their final ranch house, corral and ranch that it is today.
 In 1966 Grampy got a job for US AID that would lead them on their world travels. Their first stop was Kunduz, Afghanistan, where Granny homeschooled Dad in second grade. Dad remembers this fondly. He gives this as proof that she was a dynamic woman, "she taught me Greek mythology in Kunduz, Afghanistan when I was in the second grade, she was amazing." 
Front door of ranch house, with list of places Granny has lived, Kabul, Saigon, Taipei, Katmandu,  Vientiane, Washington DC, Columbo and Dhaka... as well as their latitude, longitude, and miles from home.
Granny went on to live in Kabul, Saigon, Taipei, Katmandu, Vientiane, Washington DC, Columbo, And Dhaka... And that's just the official list. Dad says that wherever they lived Granny always joined the local women's organizations, checked in with the local orphanages to see what they needed, and otherwise oversaw the local communities to see that she did whatever she could to help. Dad chuckles as he remembers that she always gave away his toys to the orphanages when they moved, and that he learned to pack his toys in his suitcase. 
He recalls many dinners where she was hostess to people who were in the Peace Corp in the area, those who were homesick and wanted a hot meal that reminded them of home. Granny, ever the hostess, was happy to oblige. Dad said he had many meals of hot goat and rice with these men. He remembers how she always smiled. 
Granny wasn't always a hostess. Sometimes she was a nurse. Dad recalls that one time a boy had a contusion on his head and Granny stitched him right up. Though I cannot remember the specifics of any of the stories well enough to recount them here I have heard other tales of her doctoring locals. I know that she has helped women with sick and starving babies, some who died. She has helped with all kinds of things like that, she was very kind. 
While her family traveled, it was often split up. With the kids in school in one place or another, Grampy working hard, sometimes in places Granny could not go.  This left often Granny in another place, holding down the fort. It amazes me that a small town girl from Fort Laramie, Wyoming in that time, was able to cope with the wonders and horrors of the third world. She did it while managing a family, and she often did it alone. 
In the late seventies and early eighties my aunt and dad came home to the states to go to school. The met their spouses. They got married. They graduated from college. Granny was the most traveled member of our family because she always found a way to make it to the important events in people's lives. She traveled the world to ensure she was at her children's graduations and weddings.
At Mom and Dad's wedding, Granny did not smile much. Mom though maybe she was unhappy. For decades she thought this. Thirty four years later, when my Mom got her dentures, Mom was talking about them and Granny mentioned that she did not like her teeth either. She said that that's why she did not fully smile in photographs, including the ones at Mom and Dad's wedding. This was sad because Granny had a beautiful smile. She always struck me as a woman who knew what was what, and had all the confidence in the world, so learning that she had this bit of vanity surprised me. It showed me that yes, my Granny was human just like everybody else. 
Speaking of knowing "what was what," - that was a family saying because of Granny. When Dad was in preschool he had a truck he took to school to play with. He did not want to share it. The teacher complained. Granny said, well he knew what was what. Ever since that has been a saying in our family. It has been used to encourage individuals in our family to stand up for ourselves, to never back down, to always remember that we know what is what. This is an example of how she always stood up for her kids, and her family. 

This was a special photo because Laura was in it.  She was not in Wyoming often.
With both children she developed a special relationship. Granny was so personable that she got along with everybody. She even got along with her children's friends. In her fifties she visited Dad in his frat house and got along with all his "brothers." In her eighties she went to New Mexico and hung out with Marsha and her friends at the bar and fit right in. Granny was so pleasant that she made friends with all of Dad and Marsha's friends. 
Well, not always -  sometimes she spoke her mind and got on their nerves. The first time she ever met my mother, Mom was dating someone else. They came to visit Dad at his frat house while Granny was there and brought beer. Granny nagged them about the beer. It got on Mom's nerves and Mom said, "I don't even listen to my own mom while I am in college, why should I listen to you?" Mom remembers this moment very clearly as a moment she wishes she could take back. She wishes she had said something else as her first thing to her future mother in law... But I think it is a classic moment for them, as they butted heads for decades. That is why it was so special when nearly thirty years later Mom was crying over a fight with her step mom and Granny said that Mom would always be welcome at the ranch because she was family. Earning the status of family in Granny's eyes was a big deal. Only she, Craig and those born to the family by blood ever accomplished this feet. 
In 1983 I was born. When I was five months old, we traveled to where she was staying in Virginia for Christmas. She had a little playpen where I learned to pull myself up. Dad said I was a force of nature. He said I get that from my Granny. I don't remember the first time I met my Granny, but Dad says she has always loved me and I believe him. 
In 1985 Grampy was officially moved stateside and retired. My sister Laura was also born. I believe that they were there for Laura's birth. This was the year that Granny and Grampy moved back to the ranch and began building the ranch house. Granny put in her share of blood sweat and tears into that ranch house, digging fence post holes and working alongside everyone else. 
Laura and I have many special memories of Granny too. We remember her breaking out all the old dolls and other toys from storage for us and playing alongside us. We remember the smell of a new box of crayons that she bought special each summer for us. We remember the time that Laura got bit by a horsefly and we both sat screaming unsure of what to do and Granny came from the house with a magazine, killed it, and went back in to the house without a word. 
To me, it seemed that Granny always knew what to do like that. She was very matter of fact, very knowledgable, very quick on her feet. On matters important to her, she was well informed, carefully researched, and highly opinionated. She read two or three newspapers every day, watched the news often, and worked hard to keep herself informed. She was funny, when she would pish posh at a senator or politician she did not like. She was a devoted democrat. She donated to the party, and voted "D" down the line, religiously, but when you talked to her you would find out that she really was not very liberal. She was complicated like that. 
The pillow with the fishes on it.
Laura's memories also include waking up early on summer mornings to the smell of breakfast cooking and hearing Granny speaking softly to Rexy saying, "Well, come along now." She remembers the intimate, quiet, gentle, voice she used with Rex and all her animals. She also remembers riding in the backseat of Granny's green Lincoln, and how we used to cuddle with her green pillow with the fishes on it and dig through her purse for candy. Granny always had a tin of little fruit flavored mints or a roll of Worther's original caramels tucked away. 
One of Granny's favorite things in the world to do was shop. In Virginia, there were big department stores, and she really loved to peruse them. Here in Wyoming she seemed to really like to go to the thrift shops and seek out the best deals. All of my life Granny has sent care packages with her thrift shop deals, specially hand picked for me and Laura inside. This tradition has continued. One of the last things she ever did was buy a few snap button western cut shirts for my sons from the local thrift shop. I bawled like a baby when Mom gave them to me, knowing that these were my last care package from her, I stuck my nose in the bag smelling them, knowing exactly what they would smell like, as Granny has always used the same detergent, and everything from her house has the slight scent of mothballs. It will be hard to even take these shirts out of the bag and allow the kids to use them, as I have the urge to just keep them in the bag and smell them forever. 
Here I am with Granny and Laura, dressed in a full Tommy 

I remember when I was perhaps, 18, Granny drove me all the way into town to Cheyenne. She took me to Dillard's and told me I could have whatever I wanted and we spent the afternoon shopping together. I remember that I picked two pairs of jeans, one with a cherry patterned belt, the other a pair of Tommy Hilfiger pants. The brand was a special one for us. It was popular at my school in middle school when Granny, who always bought the brand name of things at the thrift shop, bought me a pair of jeans when I was perhaps 13. I hopped up and down and paraded through the ranch house singing about my new Tommy Hilfiger jeans. She spent the rest of her life sending me every Tommy product she found at a thrift shop, remembering that it made me happy. 
That's how she was, she liked to make people happy. I remember that one summer she was late doing her grocery shopping when we came to visit. I went with her to Torrington as she picked up the few items she felt she needed if we were going to be there. She picked up Laura and Mom's favorite Dorothy Lynch salad dressing. She got Dad coffee. And she got me pickles and bologna. She bought these things even though she normally does not keep them on hand in her kitchen, to be sure that we each had our favorite things while we visited. She wanted us to be happy. 
Laura recalls that Granny wasn't just that way with people. When she took her table scraps out to the animals, she always remembered which scrap which animal liked best. She remembered that the llama might like the cantaloupe rinds best, while the horse likes the carrots for example. 
While Granny liked to make others happy, it wasn't often that you caught her laughing or smiling. She had a hard shell. I remember vividly the first time she laughed out loud in front of me. Dad was driving the Lincoln. He rolled down her window as we approached a sprinkler on her side of the car and made it so that she got sprayed by the water. She laughed and hollered, "Oh, Tom Lee!" It was very funny. 
While I always pictured Granny as a stoic person, she proved herself to me as someone who had many emotions. In 1998, or perhaps 1999, the corral burned down, killing many of the sheep and destroying the property. Granny, while taking this in stride, was obviously devastated. She has always been the one to take care of the lambs, to bottle feed them around the clock, to ensure they come in at dark, ect... And she secretly loved them all. I was very proud of the way Granny and Grampy rebuilt the corral and the flock. It took time and investment and heart. 
When it comes to things that take time and investment and heart, Granny was always good at that. I think this is most clearly shown in her relationship with her children who were both absolutely devoted to her. I think that it could be said that Granny was Marsha's best friend. They worked and traveled and shopped and did everything together. They spoke every day, they shared everything. They were very close, as was Dad who often spoke to Granny near daily and shared nearly everything with her. 
Granny loved getting family photographs like this taken.  At almost every family gathering, we took one.

I myself had had a strange relationship with Granny. As with all my relationships as a teenager, my relationship with Granny in my teenage years was volatile. While it was hard for me to understand and get along with her, there was always effort on her part. We still had some very special and endearing times. Still, It took years to repair my being a teenager. I feel that in the last five years or so, Granny and I have become very close. I have particularly enjoyed sharing the experience of being a mother with her. I have watched her interact with my sons, and that has been special. She has told me she loves me and is proud of me. I will always treasure and hold on to that. 
To speak of Granny in the past tense is a difficult thing. Perhaps the most difficult thing of all is imagining the head of her table empty she has always been the hostess, Mother, Granny, the head of the table. The one who set the pace for all of us. The one who put breakfast on the table, and Grampy's meds, and Dad's coffee and Daniel's syrup and of course... The fruit. How will we start our day without the fruit? It seems impossible to imagine navigating this life without Granny at the helm, at the head of the table, right there to tell me what to do. I can only hope that I have gathered enough of her with me, that I can carry her with me always, that I have the ability to serve her memory justly... That I can always remember the things she taught me and the times we had together and that I pass these things on to my children correctly. 
In Granny's adult life, there were were 7 of us, Tom, Tom Lee, Tammie, Marsha, Craig, Me, and Laura... We were her inner circle. We were the people who mattered to her. We were the people she let into her heart. 
As with all our family photos, there is always someone missing, because someone has to hold the camera, in this case, it's Mom.  but it's nice that this photo has Craig in it.
Beyond that, it was difficult for Granny to reach out to people. See, Granny was a tough old bird. Breaking through her shell was difficult. She did not love easily, she did not trust easily, she did not let people in with ease. The last moments of her life were difficult, but she is free now. Free to hug Aunt Bertha's neck, and walk with her, and be at peace. I think that Granny was seeking peace in her own way for a long time, and I am so grateful that her spirit has found that now. I believe that she is now able to love and have no fear. If there can be anything for us to aspire to, it can be that - true love. Love without fear. Absolute love. And that's where Granny is now. Wrapped in the arms of her Aunt Bertha, experiencing true, absolute love without fear and I can be at peace with that until I see her on the other side.

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