“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.
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!”
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.