“My mom asked that I send you a little something from her home,” my friend Mary had emailed late last summer. “You will get a good smile out of it.”

Mary’s mother Helen was one of the neighborhood moms I grew up with in St. Paul, Minnesota, a tight-knit cadre of women who watched over each other’s daughters as if we were their own. Truth be told, Helen was always my favorite, a tiny crackerjack of a woman with a great laugh and a twinkle in her eyes. I loved spending time in her kitchen and would watch with curious wonder as she’d drop a shiny penny into a jar ­– “a penny a day for Mary’s wedding dress,” she would say. We had just started elementary school, but clearly this woman had dreams!

Now at age ninety-nine, she was sorting through her belongings and moving to a nursing home not far from our old neighborhood.

There were four of us in our little pack. Julie lived next door, Kim next to her and Mary across the alley, a house we would access through a hidden passageway we had fashioned through their backyard hedge. Valerie was a little older and left the fold early on for her own-aged friends, and Karen at the end of the block wove in and out in later years. But mostly it was the four of us, spending summers running from one house to the next, one backyard to another. From board games and Barbie dolls to bike rides and birthday parties, we were a sisterhood bound by age and geography and the dreams of young girls.

Our neighborhood group – me, Kim, Mary and Julie – and our dog Perky. Summer 1967.

I’m not sure exactly when it was that Mary and I happened upon a box of dresses in her garage, but for two little girls with big imaginations, it was as if we’d discovered gold. Long lacy gowns with matching shoes and handbags were nestled inside a cardboard storage box, fancy items Helen had once worn and no longer wanted. Mary and I wasted no time putting the dresses over our shorts and tank tops, transforming ourselves into ladies who drank tea. We held court on her backyard patio, summoned our imaginary butler by pressing the cover on an electrical outlet and spun stories filled with possibility and an endless amount of hope.

Helen’s dresses opened a window inside my imagination that I never knew existed. It was as if I suddenly had a place to express my thoughts and dreams, a safe haven for a developing young spirit. And I’m completely convinced that my love of tea today can be traced back to those summer afternoons on Mary’s patio.

As we grew older, Helen spearheaded plans to venture beyond our neighborhood for lunches in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. She’d pick a restaurant where we could dress up a little, and the four of us –­ Mary, Helen, my mother and me ­– would spend the afternoon lunching and window shopping, stretching our outing as long as we possibly could. I remember one of the restaurants had a Renoir print hanging by our table, and my ever-optimistic younger self announced to the group that one day I would go to Paris and see that painting in person. But what is so remarkable to me about that moment is the look I saw on Helen’s face, a broad encouraging smile that said, “Of course, you will!”

Helen greeting Herb at our wedding in 1979, saying something that made him burst into the biggest smile.

The package from Helen arrived in September, mementos of her life that she thought I would enjoy along with a note she had dictated to Mary. There was a children’s book called Dressing Up from 1953, a pearl pin and a Limoges china teacup and saucer decorated with pale pink flowers and wispy green leaves. “You have always been special to me,” she wrote, “and I’m glad you have a wonderful life.”

Last week Mary emailed to tell me Helen had passed away. It was a short, heart-wrenching note, but she wanted me to know. Helen had become unresponsive, as Mary described it, and had simply slept away.

I’ve thought a lot about Helen these past few days…the serendipity of how we land in the same place at the same time with people who become important and impact us; how we carry certain people with us our entire lives, even if it has been years since we’ve seen them; how we can look back on little things like a box of fancy dresses with the deepest and most profound feeling of gratitude.

And then I did what I think Helen would have wanted me to do most of all.

I made a cup of tea.

14 Comments

  • Oh how special life can be with deep relationships. Okay I admit it, I teared up as I read. Thank you for sharing a sweet life story about those we care for in our dear lives!

    • Hello Nancy! Thank you for your kind words here. I’m so happy you enjoyed the story, and I completely agree about the specialness of deep relationships!

  • Oh Mar, what an extraordinary tribute to Helen and lifelong friendships! I have full body chills and tears in my eyes. You are a gifted writer….thanks for sharing your beautiful thoughts with us. BTW….you look the same as back then! Lovely inside and out! Much love, Mar

    • Mar, it is wonderful to hear from you here! A million thank-yous for your lovely, sweet comments. Lifelong friendships are truly a treasure…from a favorite childhood playmate to finding ourselves in the an eighth grade homeroom with a future best friend 🙂 Sending lots of love your way!

  • Mary, this was lovely. It took me back to my own childhood and the girls I ran around with in my neighborhood. I am so glad you shared your story.

  • Mary, I do not know you, but I do know Mary, Helen’s daughter. Mary is actually my boss and friend. I read this and I could see Mary as a child and playing; she is just as you described. I never had the pleasure of meeting Helen, but Mary has told me many stories about her and she seems just as you described. I wish I had known Helen. Thank you for sharing this wonderful, heartfelt story; I cried for 10 minutes. Sherri

    • Sherri, I am so touched by your beautiful comment. Thank you! I’m sorry you never had a chance to meet Helen, but I’m happy to have offered a little peek into her kindness and character. And how wonderful that you have Mary as a friend – she is a gem!

  • What a delightful story! I have never really thought about how the people we knew/know simply by geography shaped our lives.

    • I’m really happy to know you enjoyed the story, Susan! Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to share your thoughts.

  • Lovely story, Mary. An elderly neighbour wrote in my autograph book way back when “Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold” How true that is.

  • Gill, thank you! Your mention of an autograph book made me smile and transported me back to the little red autograph book I had growing up. Those are wise words from your elderly neighbor. I’ll bet she would have been thrilled to know that you remembered them years later and thoughtfully passed them along 🙂

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