Posted by: deadmousediaries | October 16, 2012

News from the Path Valley Hotel, Episode #49 – Meet Great Aunt Helen

My grandmother’s older brother Tom and my great aunt Helen.

You don’t get to pick your relatives but sometimes you get lucky. My great Aunt Helen was far too cool to be an outlaw in my grandmother’s family but she was the one who married into it; Uncle Tom was born there. Their photo is one of the treasures that has earned a spot on the mantle of the Path Valley Hotel.

When I was little, I would spend a week at their house in the summer. She and Uncle Tom lived “in town” in half of a two-story duplex.  In the front of the house, the main floor was on street level but the house sat carved into the landscape so that in  the back, the first floor kitchen towered above the yard below. The kitchen opened up onto a little porch that was more like a balcony.

Their backyard was long and narrow with fences on both sides.  At the far end of the sidewalk,  a creaky iron gate opened right at the edge of the railroad tracks. Those conflicting scenes, the busy street outside the front door and the mostly quiet and isolated railway out the back always made me feel like I was stepping into some kind of storybook world when I visited there.

Aunt Helen never learned to drive so our summer adventures involved walking the eight or so blocks into the downtown for an ice cream sundae or walking to the neighborhood drug store to get a popsicle and a magazine. In the afternoons, she would fill a big glass pitcher with iced tea (something we never had at home) and we would sit on the kitchen porch or follow the steps down into the yard where the neighbor’s huge maple tree made the most delicious shade.  No matter how many times I visited, there was always one industrious chipmunk who was kept busy racing back and forth from a hole beneath the sidewalk. There must have been generations of chipmunk families living there, each with a designated representative who upheld this never-ending ritual.

Aunt Helen made exciting things happen.  She would make me chicken and waffles for dinner, another delicacy I never had at home. In the evenings , she could coax her sister to take us to the drive-in movie where we drank “pop” and ate pretzels we brought from home. On the hottest nights, she could get us invited to swim in a friend’s  in-ground pool which was quite a luxury in the 1960s. I  would climb into bed and drift away with the sound of her white swag curtains fluttering in the summer breeze. I don’t remember how we filled all the hours of our days; I only remember the moments and they all seemed magical.

In my remembering, Aunt Helen was always full of fun although I’m sure her life had not been. She had worked in a factory and a tea room and spent some years as a telephone operator to bring in extra income while raising two kids. I do remember of her telling stories of how she and Uncle Tom thought they were living the high life when they had $2 left over by Friday night so they could buy a quart of beer and invite friends over to play cards.

I know my grandparents both loved her, in-law or not. Of all the stories that she had been part of before I came along, I only remember this one thing. My grandfather owned a dump truck and he hauled coal, lime, blacktop, wood –whatever would help pay the bills. There was some kind of local event that included a parade and “Pap” had agreed to drive his truck as one of the entries. Some elaborate decorating must have been required because as the story goes, the final touches sealed all the occupants inside.  By the time it was finished, both of my grandparents and my Aunt Helen were being held captive by crepe paper as best as I can determine.

All would have gone smoothly if things had kept moving but as often happens with parades, there were  a lot of delays. And I guess Aunt Helen must have had made a big pitcher of iced tea that afternoon, too, because before the truck ever got moving, she had to pee.

I’m sure there had been some discussion about ruining all the decorating by opening the door so the three of them put their heads together and found a more creative answer. Instead of taking the coward’s way out, Aunt Helen crouched, whipped down her big girl panties, and managed to pee through a hole in the floor (which is quite a feat for someone who had not been born with a pointer). I can quite easily imagine my grandmother encouraging her to do it and then blocking the view as much possible to help shield my Pap from the whole experience.   I can also see him shaking his head in fun and feigning disbelief.

So here’s the question. Who decides or how do we determine what stories will survive to be told about us decades after we’re gone? What staying power did this one story have that has kept it alive for three generations? If you have any ideas, please let me know. I want to make sure the right stories about me get remembered. MK



  1. My quick thought this morning is that it is that feeling of being awestruck………..and the humor in the story………that feeling of even though I barely remember the person, just trying to put myself into their shoes……..and imagining myselsf in that same situation, sometimes wishing I had the same fortitude to handle it like they did.

  2. Thanks for thinking through my question, Karin, and sharing your insight. I have become such an advocate for writing down family stories and I think it is just this kind of thing that makes me so passionate about it. I dearly loved my grandmother and spent as much “real ” time with her when I was growing us as I did with my mother (and we actually had much easier conversations) but my stories are so limited about her days as a daughter, a young bride and mother. I don’t know if it was because I never thought to ask or they never seemed important when she was part of my life and could tell them but It makes me sad to know I will never hear them now.

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