My Great-Aunt Helen was a pistol. That’s the best way to describe her. She was a transport sergeant in the Marines, and when I attended her funeral six years ago, the priest told the congregation that it was the first time he had performed military honors for a woman.
Helen grew up as part of a large Polish Catholic family in northern Wisconsin. She had two husbands, both of whom were named Wally. She met her second husband while singing the national anthem at a snowshoe softball game in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, which also happens to be the home of the Hodag. (A Hodag is what you’d get if you mixed a jackalope with a Game of Thrones dragon, BTW.)
When it became clear that acting and singing weren’t going to just be a hobby for me, the nearest heredity influence my family could identify was Helen. She paid for my braces, and she helped to finance my undergraduate education as well.
I met Helen only a half a dozen times in my life. My favorite memory is visiting her at the nursing home, playing Christmas carols on the piano and singing with her to the other residents.
Let it be known that Helen never really cared for that nursing home, and planned an escape the following Easter. She knew which exit wouldn’t be heavily watched during the festivities and hightailed it out of there with her walker. State troopers picked her up just as she was about to get to the county highway.
My parents help to take care of Helen in her final years. While she was still at her home, a bear walked through her house and ransacked her many bird feeders. My father named him Roberto, and sent her postcards penned by that mischievous bear for several months.
When Helen passed, I asked my parents if they would pay for a plane ticket for me to make the trek from Seattle to northern Wisconsin and back. They seemed surprised, but enthusiastically said yes. I asked if I could sing Amazing Grace at the service. They phoned back a couple days later saying not only could I sing the song, but would I also consider giving the eulogy. I cracked a joke saying “Well, of course—what else is a theatre major good for?”
After the service, we went to the cemetery where Helen’s several siblings were buried. A 21-gun salute honored her service, and my father shared that he and his sister, Jean, would often walk the cemetery as kids and pick up the bullet casings from these salutes. A folded flag was also offered to our family, and when no one else indicated interest, I said that I would like to take it home.
Fast forward to the present day, when Meridith Grundei, who is directing the second year MFA Theatre: Contemporary Performance ensemble in Under Construction, by Charles Mee, asks the cast if anyone has an American flag. I make an offering of Helen’s memorial.
The first day we rehearsed the closing moments of the play with Helen’s flag, I had a hard time holding back tears. I would like to think that Helen is watching me rehearse from the great beyond. It heartens me to know that her flag and her legacy live on.
The MFA Theatre: Contemporary Performance program brings things into focus for its students. I’ve learned so much about the theatre artist I want to become and the work I want to share with the world. Helen is a part of that tapestry.
At home, I have a binder filled with letters that Helen wrote during World War II. My mother wants me to use them to write a play about her. Someday, when I’m ready.
Under Construction runs 9/29-10/8 at Naropa’s Nalanda Campus. More info & tickets here.