A to Z Challenge: Helen

This character sketch is not fictional. Helen was her name and this is a part of her story that is real, as closely as I can remember it.

Her funeral was in Gladewater, Texas, the place where I had known her years before. There was a lot of time on the flight from Florida for me to think about who she was, what she had done, and what she had meant to me. Even though we think of the West having been won and settled a long time ago, she was a true pioneer woman with a spirit that would have survived even back then.

It was the early 1970’s and I was a transplant from the north, attending a small private school in Big Sandy, Texas. Helen lived on a small farmstead about three miles off campus. She had already earned the title of “grandma” to lots of students that she had met attending the college church. Anyone who needed to have a break from the busy educational scene was, sooner or later, invited to come out and experience a completely different environment with Helen.

Her story had a tragic start. She and her husband had moved from California to some undeveloped acreage that was going to be their homestead. They had plans for a self-sufficient lifestyle and were willing to work hard to see it take place. The land, hilly in places and covered with pine and oak forest, had to be cleared first. Her husband was cutting trees one day when one fell the wrong way and pinned him. Helen got to him, only in time to be there when he died.

They had sold everything to buy that land, and she had nowhere else to go, so she stayed. She had a small mobile home, a pole barn, a few small storage buildings and a chicken house. She was in her 50’s, alone, trying to figure out how to make ends meet. College students and church friends rallied to help her. My husband and I were newly married and looking for a place to garden and maybe build a house. Helen had property, we had manpower and some resources. It was a mutually beneficial endeavor – we adopted her and she adopted us.

Hot, east Texas summers were spent planting, weeding and helping Helen. In the fall, we would drive around town looking for bagged leaves sitting out for trash pickup, and we’d take them to her for the garden. Helen and her chickens made sure we never ran out of eggs, and after a hard day’s work she always supplied ice tea, and the best ever cornbread.

Helen, leading her flock to the coop for the night.

One summer she went back to California to visit her grown children. I was most familiar with her animals and the chores so I stayed and “trailer sat”. I remember trying to fall asleep at night with all the sounds of the country, under and around me. It took some getting used to. In the morning the roosters woke up so early! I fed the cats, milked the cow, and collected eggs. I had always loved farm life, but living in a trailer was new to me. I loved being able to hear the animals close by, chickens scratching in the dirt under the trailer, guinea hens perching in the trees overhead, cows drinking from their water tank.

Helen’s mobile home. Come sit a spell on the front porch

Sadly, my husband’s work plans changed and we left Texas for the west coast in 1976, but we stayed in touch with Helen. Letters passed back and forth between us and we often took care of financial needs for her. She was like our “other mother”. We visited her several times over the following years, and Helen made a surprise trip up north to visit us after the birth of our first child. Others took our place helping her over time.

I was so impressed that she traveled, alone, to visit our firstborn.

We were informed of Helen’s death in 1998. At 81 she was relaxing in her living room chair, still independent, still sharing what she had with others, still living the lifestyle she had chosen for herself, still strong in her faith, when she died. An amazing woman, a worthy role model, not soon forgotten.

Grandma Helen, a pioneer spirit.

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