The Fourth Annual Halsey Helgeson Letter
This year’s letter is dedicated to the memory of Linda Coe Halsey and Gene Widstrom.
The year really began in March, when our parents came to Texas to enjoy Spring Break at Port Aransas with us. But Linda came in great pain and died on Easter Day. Her illness was sudden and heartbreaking. Anne and the kids relocated to Iowa for five months to care for her mother and help her dad. Jeff traveled frequently between Texas and Iowa in late spring, joining them in Mt. Vernon after the semester finished. Big Grandpa died this fall. Although less tragic in timing and circumstance, his death has brought us much sorrow, as well. Our apologies if this is harsh or shocking, but this has not been a year for soft-pedaling or euphemisms. The loss of a beloved parent and grandparent has bent us in ways we could not have predicted. What were constants in our lives—always only a phone call away—are no longer; it is impossible to accurately account here the bracing loss of love we feel, the losses with which we will live forever. We are sharply aware of the brevity of time.
Healing is such hard work. But as we said this letter is dedicated to the memory of Linda and Gene, and as we think about what they would want this letter to be, we know that they would not want it all to be regret and grief. They would want to hear about how we are surviving, and, more, how we came together and discovered new friends and deep family connections to make the year full, nonetheless. The lesson both of them taught us is that it begins and ends with our families and friends.
This year, we learned the truth in the lyric from the song, “Nature Boy” (recorded most famously by one of Linda’s favorite artists, Nat King Cole), that “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is [just] to love and be loved in return.” In hard times, the people we love and who love us are all.
We are lucky to have had family and friends come from near and far to soften the blow of all our falls. They came in caravans from Minnesota and RVs (yes, plural) on cross-country trips. They came by plane from New York via Chicago, masters of the empathetic hug and analeptic piano. They came by phone via the Pizza Palace, and will be forgiven for the Michelob Ultra Light. They came willing to sit at Chameleon’s and remember how it was to be a child with Linda and her gang as the “responsible parties.” They came from everywhere with flowers, and food, and phone calls, letters, cards, text messages, and email. They came in extra-sensorial ways—we just knew they were there. They came for hard cider and the blues, for Heritage Days and a breakfast 30 miles away. They came for weeks on end with homemade wine, cake, bread, salad, daffodils, pie, pizza, enchiladas, chicken, brisket, lasagna, quiche, hot dish, salsa, soup, watermelon, macaroni, potatoes, coffee, childcare, water guns, ice for bee stings, beer, muffins, toy trains, play dough, prayers, and public pool floaty things. They came with their children to play and jumping jacks to hop in. They came as of course they would, but also as complete surprises. There were kind eyes we didn’t expect to see that lit up our most difficult moments, as we climbed the stairs from the fellowship hall for the funeral. They offered cabins for an overnight escape. They sent photos and fruit and nuts and music and cookies by parcel post. They delivered prayer shawls, books, and games and clothing for the children. They brought groceries to the house, organized the kitchen, picked up our mail, fed our frog(s). They were teachers, coaches, and neighbors who saved our children’s days, ministers and professors who shuttled us to and from the airport, doctors and nurses and social workers and hospice workers who tended to our loved ones, and us, with the utmost skill and compassion. They were old friends and bridge partners who picked up our dry cleaning and brought paper plates. They came together and laughed at dinner. They told us of their dreams, showed us the views from their imagined houses. They rocked babies. They vacuumed carpets. They lifted the wheelchair. They held her hand and finished her quilts. They remembered and mourned their own mothers as they remembered and mourned ours with us. They never minded when we just showed up. They put us up for the night. They took in our children, found us a crib, and eased our worries. They gave us a place in their band, a chance to be a rock star once a month. They fortified themselves to stand in front of the congregation and laugh about Gene, their father, and place roses on his urn, or to tell a story about Linda’s determination, and sing “This Little Light of Mine” in her honor. They came with one (2011) Chevy to tow another (1950) home. They came for Adventure Land and Iowa steakhouses. They came to honor ancestors, cover our classes, offer golf clubs, barbecue, and leave the light on for us when we stayed up at their houses after they’d gone to bed so that we could sit in their backyards and plan our commune. They came to rest on the pontoon. They watched the ancient snapping turtle follow their bait. They pushed our children on the swings. They dropped popcorn on their ice cream cones. They came to appreciate the state-owned highly environmentally friendly resort. They welcomed us to their weddings. They came to a little hotel on the Upper West Side on Christmas. They sat at the kitchen table, or on the couch, front porch, floor, back step, or in a lawn chair, and listened. They came to walk the sidewalks of old downtowns. They came to the church. They sang. They cried. They fed us. They ate our food. They laughed at our jokes. They brought birthday cakes. They forgave us when we disappeared. They were there with beer cozies and kiddie pools, walks around the lake, and bonfires when we returned. In return, all we can do is to say, thank you.
There is so much to brag about. Sadie writes poems and constructs historic timelines, and dances, plays violin and piano, and reads Junie B. Jones with a Texas accent. Charlie is graceful as he runs into the wall to save the ball in his imagined World Series, and he is the model preschool student, as well as a young violinist himself. Jesse lives up to the nickname Linda gave him—Happy Helgeson—and is ever more gleeful as he learns how to cause trouble. The children are empathetic, resilient, funny, and the source of much of our strength and joy. If people can be measured by their friends, then our children are golden. We take no little pride in watching them revel with the cousins from New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ann Arbor, and Baltimore, the kids from Mt. Vernon, and the tight crew of San Marcos.
We continue to carry on through our sorrows. Our books are not out, yet, but they’re in progress. We’ve got stories to tell you if we can get your ears. Anne lost a dear friend and teacher and a great uncle shortly after her mother died. Jeff spent many hours in the archives working to turn his dissertation into a book while teaching a full load of classes. There’s a little piece of land—25’x125’—in Chicago with an 1880s row house on it, where we became the family we are, but which is now the cause of much consternation. You’ll hear more from us on that next year.
Yes, we continue to carry on and to grow as a family, with such friends and family as you we look forward to a better, still fortunate New Year.
Bread + Roses
The Halsey Helgesons