Yesterday I got so distracted talking about Mad Men that I forgot what I had originally set out to write about – the way that the show reminded me of one of my earliest childhood idols – Helen.
Helen was a Polish woman who had been married to my Great grandpa’s nephew. I don’t know what cousin that makes him to me so don’t try to confuse me with second cousin once removed and all that jazz – I suck at math and that seems like math to me. Anyway, I spent a great deal of my childhood with my great-grandparents (it was awesome) and Helen lived in the same small town as they did and she was still considered part of the family even though her and my cousin were divorced. Actually, I only saw her husband once in my life so draw your own conclusions from that.
Anyway, Helen to me was the epitome of Glamour. She had dark hair with a reddish cast and her lips were always bright red. She smoked like a chimney, waving her cigarettes with her large strong hands and carefully painted red nails that matched her lipstick, naturally. I know she swore a lot, and laughed really loudly. And I thought she seemed so . . . I don’t know what the words were I thought of as a child. Now, I can say I thought she would fit right in with Frankie and the Rat Pack, smoking, drinking cocktails and being glamorous. At the time I probably thought she lived a freewheeling life like my Barbie Doll did – full of fashionable clothes and makeup and boyfriends. In fact all my dolls were named Helen.
There was just something about her. Something different. And I don’t just mean her exotic Polish accent and the way she lived her life without seeming to consult anyone. The air around her just seemed different and I adored her. One time when my grandpa and I took her to the post office, she hopped out and walked directly across the lawn, ignoring the “Keep off the Grass” signs.” When she got back into the truck after she had finished her errand my grandpa asked her if she had seen the signs, and she admitted she had. “Well what if someone had stopped you from doing it?” he asked. Helen shrugged and laughed, “I’ll tell them I don’t read English.” Even my straight-laced grandpa had to laugh at her carefree audacity.
I know she adored me too. I was the lucky recipient of her attention and gifts – although as a child I was often bewildered by her presents of blankets and sets of glasses, but then again, it made me feel special. Instead of treating me as a child, she gave me things no one else would have thought to.
I remember her house was done in white and there was a large (to me at the time, anyway) china cupboard filled with delicate china and pretty glass statues and knick-knacks. Everywhere I looked there was something beautiful and delicate. Red and pink dominated the color scheme, it was like a grown up dollhouse. She had two large dogs, named Pongo and Perdita that she treated like her children.
I knew Helen couldn’t drive because my grandma often gave her rides to work. Helen worked at the Ramada Inn and I have no idea what she did there. I think she must have been a waitress or a cook or something kitchen related. At the time, I thought it seemed like a wonderful job – the Ramada Inn sounded vaguely exotic to me, and I remember after one New Year’s Eve party she brought me the leftover party hats and party horns. Bright glittery cardboard decorations, and thin rolls of colored streamers for throwing – my sister and I had a ball dressing up and playing with such glitzy items.
Eventually Helen met a man and they moved to Las Vegas – I knew she belonged with that Rat Pack set! After that, she sort of faded away. She wrote my grandma letters occasionally, and my grandma would tell me now and then how Helen was doing, but I never saw her again, which makes me kind of sad.
One day as my grandma ironed clothes in her tiny laundry room and I stood watching her, leaning against the washing machine, somehow the subject of Helen came up. My grandma told me that Helen lived in Poland during WWII and that her entire family had been killed – some before her eyes. She told my grandma how the Nazis buried them in mass graves with others in their town that had been shot, and that some of them weren’t dead yet, trying to claw their way out of the dirt being piled on them. The Nazis kept Helen.and used her sexually. I don’t remember how my grandma phrased that to me, I was in High School at this time, but I knew what she meant. She told me that the Nazis had done something to Helen so that she couldn’t have children. I remember being shocked and hurt by this news – a huge evil package had just been unwrapped in my life. How could these people have done such horrendous things to my Helen – the glamorous, funny, strong woman that I knew. The two images seemed so incongruous to my young and naive mind.
After the war, Helen met my cousin who was a U.S. soldier. She couldn’t wait to come to the United States. She thought in American anything was possible. It was a magical world where all her dreams could come true. She thought she could go to the “dime store” and buy a baby – the thing she most wanted. It never happened. She wanted to adopt me, I found out later. The presents made more sense to me when I found this out. She probably wanted to give me things I would need. I don’t think she knew what it was like to be a child with nothing on your mind except toys and television and maybe some schoolwork. A person that had survived all that she had survived wanted to give me something I would need in an emergency – blankets and shoes and clothes.
I look back now through adult eyes and I see that her life was probably very sad and lonely. Being alone – her family all gone, being divorced, working a crappy job at a small town hotel, none of that seems very glamorous to me now. I hope it wasn’t all a brave front that I knew. I hope she genuinely had some happy times. I’ve thought of her so often throughout the years. I have no idea whatever became of her. I hope she found a family. I hope she spent a night drinking cocktails and playing dice with Frank Sinatra.