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February 22, 2017

When Helen was 107

Photo of Helen
Helen Horger Ulmer Wood died last year at the age of 107. Here she is as a child (right) with her brother Frankie (left).

It was a twisted mass of embroidery thread at the bottom of my sewing basket.

Thread I hadn’t used in more than 14 years.

It reminded me of her.

We were sitting on a sofa while the lulling patter of  New Orleans rain hit the roof. Helen was 97-years-old, and I was a young mom who had just taken up the old art of hand sewing. I was carefully working that same thread into gentle flowers across the front of a smocked dress, and Helen’s eyes followed my hands. She smiled.

“I used to do that,” she said, pointing to the fabric in my lap. “I made all of Lib’s dresses by hand. Just like that.”

Seventy years prior, Lib was a precocious blonde-haired little girl who wore beautiful smocked dresses everywhere she went. That afternoon, she sat in a chair close to the sofa and reached over to pat her mother’s arm. Helen took her hand for a moment.

I told Helen I wanted my daughter to have a delicate smocked dress just like other little girls at birthday parties, but the dresses were well out of our price range. I told her how a grandmother at our church took me under her wing and taught me how to create the dresses on my own.

I handed my work to Helen, and she passed her fingers over the rows of pleating that ran across the top. She pulled the design closer to her eyeglasses and gently touched the small flowers I created. She then closed her eyes and just held the fabric. Her mind danced back 70 years, and she smiled again.

It was at that very moment I received the blessing of the family matriarch.

I had always been a bit intimidated by her because my husband and sister-in-law had spoken about how strong she was. Any problem that arose was immediately dispatched by her wisdom, determination and incredible work ethic. She was widowed when Lib was just a little girl, and she supported them with her meager earnings as a retail clerk. Lib contracted rheumatic fever as a child and was unable to walk for many months, but Helen physically carried her to school before work and physically carried her home at the end of the day. She was frugal and was never one to give or receive fancy gifts, but she showed her love with acts of service. My husband said she saw a kindred spirit in me.

Helen maintained a keen mind nearly all her life, although her last three years were difficult. Her mind began going back to her childhood and would stay there for long periods of time. She couldn’t remember family members, and at times, she would be fearful and irritable because she simply didn’t know who we were. Her hearing was nearly gone, but she still tried to engage in conversations.

The last time I saw Helen, she didn’t know who I was, but she smiled politely. I had gone into the kitchen to wash dishes and mop the floor, and I heard Helen ask my husband about the new cleaning lady. My husband tried explaining who I was, but she couldn’t remember. Helen brushed him off with a gentle nod. “I like her,” she said. “She’s a hard worker and the best cleaning lady we ever had.”

My husband was taken aback by her words, but I viewed them as the best compliment I had ever received. The words meant Helen saw a part of herself in me.

God called Helen home on Sept. 7, 2013. She was 107-years-old.

The twisted thread in my sewing basket made me think of her today.

I ran my fingers along the silky cluster, closed my eyes and my mind danced back 14 years.

And I smiled.


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4 Comments on When Helen was 107

  1. Helen, my grandmother, was a treasure. This remembrance of her made me cry. Thank you so much Kim for sharing that tender moment you shared. Her favorite thing was special handwork. I’m sure you made her smile!

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