Kooky Aunt Helen

In loving memory of my peculiar, imprudent, silly and utterly amazing great aunt Helen Lammers…

On left, my photo from inside San Luigi dei Francesi, “The Calling of St. Matthew”

Allow me to introduce you to my Aunt Helen. To merely describe her as a colorful figure in my childhood would do her a tragic disservice. Aunt Helen always wore a wig and whatever was trending in the juniors department at Kmart. I recall quite a few long, bold fish necklaces paired with stirrup pants, big sweaters and those plastic shoes we called “jellies” on her feet. Her gifts at the holidays were always my favorite, despite being the least expensive of all the offerings, because they were so obnoxiously wrapped, one inside the other. The unwrapping lasted a long time…which I found incredibly fun! Inside, there would inevitably be some vibrating or glow in the dark plastic trinket mostly likely purchased at Spencer gifts.

If you could hum her a few bars, she could play absolutely any song you wished on her piano. She rarely, if ever, used sheet music. She liked us to sing along with her to songs like “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”, and she always insisted I sing it in an octave a little higher than my alto voice wanted to go. “It sounds prettier,” she’d whisper. She wrote a little song about me as a small girl, the chorus of which included my entire proper name, which somehow rhymed the way she sang it. Phonetically, it sounded like “ME-SHEL-LIN DIE-Q-ZIN… is a very pretty girl.” There were verses too, but I don’t remember them now. I do, however, remember that chorus and how she made me feel when she sang that song.

Aunt Helen was the sister of my grandmother, Pauline. That made her my great aunt, in reality. She had one beloved son who had long since moved to Florida when I was coming of age, and he was unmarried. That made my sister, Robin and myself her adopted grandchildren. Since Mom was a young student at Purdue when she married my Dad, Aunt Helen was a frequent babysitter. I spent a lot of time at her little house on 27th Street, just a block from Columbian Park and with a backyard that virtually backed into the front door of the old Home Hospital. We made tents out of the sheets she hung from her clothesline in the backyard and spent whole afternoons pretending to hold an imaginary circus, making a palace for our dolls, or trying on her closet full of high heels. It didn’t matter that we were without a swimsuit. If it was hot and we wanted to run through her sprinkler, she just told us not to worry about a silly problem like swimsuits and she let us run through in our underwear. We’d break pieces of bread and toss them back into their bread bags and take them to the park to feed the ducks. The larger, more aggressive among the flock terrified me not just a little, and my running from them made Aunt Helen cackle with delight on many occasions.

As I grew older, we remained close. She was my confirmation sponsor. When Tom and I were in high school and then in college, we would stop in to visit my Aunt Helen (and Uncle Charlie) to play euchre. It was always girls vs. boys and I really have no recollection of who won or who lost. I just remember my quirky Uncle Charlie always slow playing his 1 beer and 3 oreos, which by the way, was the same pace at which he played euchre. We always left there smiling and feeling like it was time well spent. I loved Tom for all the hands of cards he played with me and my grandparents as well as Aunt Helen and Uncle Charlie.

When she passed away down in Florida, where she went to live with her son Johnny at the end of her life, I recall feeling robbed of the opportunity to properly mourn someone I loved so deeply. All those years later, I honestly still feel that way. Here’s the utterly inappropriate and yet awesome gift Aunt Helen gave me. I knew I was her favorite. She was embarrassingly open about the fact that she liked me just a little better than everyone else, and in fact it got her into some trouble with my grandmother as well as my parents. “Helen, you can’t ask the girls what they want for dinner and then ALWAYS make what Shelly asks for,” my grandmother would scold. As a parent myself, I know I would be vocal about this kind of favoritism when it comes to my boys. It was wrong….oh so wrong….B-U-T….I always felt beloved by her.

When I was in Rome very recently, I found myself in the very front left corner of a church called “San Luigi dei Francesi” which translates “The Church of St. Louis of the French” and it is not far from Piazza Navona. One of the side chapels in this beautiful church contains some spectacular paintings by the baroque master Caravaggio. This includes a world renowned canvas of “The Calling of St. Matthew”, the seeing of which rather took my breath away. It has long been a painting I consider a favorite for spiritual reasons I don’t think I can convey adequately here. To look up, though, and see it in person felt a whole lot like being that 8 year-old girl who knew she was Aunt Helen’s favorite. In that instant, a certain feeling of belovedness which often eludes me, just washed over me.

For just a moment, I nearly drowned in it.

Writing about a moment of divine intimacy, or of spiritual consolation is often said to be a poor idea, as it’s very giving away can serve to minimize or trollop on the moment which was perhaps meant to be a private gift between one soul and it’s Creator, among other reasons.

Here’s the reason I’m doing it anyway. The thing that had long prevented me from growing closer to God was a disordered view of myself. Like A LOT of people I know, I had been Matthew with my head on the table. I am quick to believe all criticism and remember all failure, and loathe to believe in my goodness. I long felt like Matthew with his head on the table saying “not me, Lord.” He was a hated tax collector, he was all things unworthy. Yet there was Jesus pointing at him saying, “Come follow me.”

We think we are so darn smart, but our self-knowledge and ingenuity are utterly insufficient, and they certainly won’t effectuate union with God. What we really need is a supernatural faith. We need a faith that understands God loves His children more than we love ours. We need to know that we are worthy, our lives priceless, simply because WE ARE HIS.

If you are reading my words today, I want you to know something. YOU ARE LOVED. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. YOU ARE WORTHY.

This summer, my cousin took his life and that of his family. This fall, a young college senior named Evan, who was the very picture of goodness, took his life. Last week, the nephew of a church friend, a young man named JJ, the only child of his parents, took his life. In the last year alone, my pastor has buried 5 of his parishioners after the same tragedy. Folks, this must stop.

I’m not quite sure how but we must help and it must begin with being unafraid to love others. That means EVERYONE. ALWAYS. You and I maybe aren’t mental health professionals. We are just regular people like my Aunt Helen. What can we do about it, right? I mean who are we to solve such a big problem? I’m not sure.

However, I do know this. Aunt Helen was divorced at a young age, a thing about which she never spoke. She liked her cocktails a little too much. She thought iodine and baby oil was the nectar of the Gods and should be slathered upon the human body whenever the sun peaked out. She seemed to believe pimento cheese and fried chicken were both food groups unto themselves. Also, in her quirky and ordinary life, she was the face of Christ to me. Despite her flaws, God used her to teach me that I am beloved. She was a person who seemed to see the butterfly wings I couldn’t spot because they were behind me. So, when God came close to remind me, I remembered the feeling as I gazed at the beauty of the Caravaggio painting and He drew me in.

I left there thinking about how very much I love Him, and that I can do more for the Lord.

The beautiful senses God has given us can help us grow in holiness. I feel His love at mass, in the Eucharist and when Tom kisses me gently on the forehead. I feel it when a friend sends me a sweet card or when the sun sets over Lake Michigan—and apparently in the corners of dusty old churches in Rome I discover with Mom.

This week, we celebrated the feast day of one of my favorites, St. Theresa of Avila. She said this. “The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and do that which best stirs you to love.”

I don’t know how to fix so many problems I see in this world, but I think it starts there.