Helen's Book

For years I tried to help her hold on to her memories by stashing prompts in "Helen's Book." Years after her death, a stunning discovery gives rise to yet another book...

IMG_4847.jpeg

She died years ago, November 9th at 1:17pm, while my daughter, sister and I were shopping at Marshalls for festive holiday-themed glassware and shoes that would fit her grotesquely swollen feet when she died. 

 

My mother would have been mortified if we buried her without shoes.  

 

Excellent at keeping up appearances, especially her own, on the day she died she had fresh polish on her nails. She was beautiful. Stunning. And funny. She looked like a mannequin in high heels and red lipstick, her head tilted as if she couldn't quite hear what you said, and she never left the house without “putting on her face.”

 

Like other women who raised children in the 50s, she never learned how to drive, but managed to get everyplace she needed to go, spilling a lexicon of silly sayings and funny names for all, quickly scuttling about with sparrow-like curiosity, wearing very high heels and swinging her right arm like an errant pendulum. Everyone loved my mother. 

 

She could make a mean Jello mold and great meatballs, but not a good meal; kept meticulous financial and medical records, but not a good house. She loved my kids with all her heart, and that was more than enough to compensate for any deficiencies.

 

Our relationship was complicated and still is even twenty-three years after her mind and her body abandoned all efforts at survivorship. 

 

As dementia cruelly and incrementally crept through her cortex I created a book, “Helen’s Book” filled with simple sentences, “Dick and Jane” style orientations to help her find her way. 

A one inch thick, robin’s egg blue three-ring plastic binder, like a toddler’s primer filled with magazine photos of beautiful birds and cute puppies, family photos clearly labeled in large print with a felt tip marker and enthusiastic affirmations of better-days-yet-to-come-that-never-did.  

 

“You are getting better!” “Courtney is driving!” “Greg is working at Grand Union after school!” “Beep-beep here comes the jeep!” one of her favorite silly sayings.

 

I wanted to make it better. 

 

Everything changes but Helen's Book hasn’t changed at all. The clear plastic pages have neither tarnished nor yellowed, the binder is not tattered and the blue plastic cover is still very blue.

 

I have only looked at it two or three times in the past twenty three years but I’ve kept it on the shelf in the guest room closet, next to my high school and college yearbooks, under the wide brimmed now yellowy-once-white-bridal-hat that I wore the day I married my now deceased ex-husband.

 

Last month after unexpectedly coming across a trove of the letters that she and I exchanged during my college years I enlisted my granddaughter, Skyler Marie, to place each letter in a plastic sleeve so I could begin compiling another book, a three inch, three-ring white plastic binder. There are hundreds of letters, mostly from my mom but some from my dad and others. 

 

“Between You and Me" I will call it, an historic and intimate chronicle, a time capsule of our relationship from the 60s and 70s. I can’t wait to read it. 

 

I will find a space for both books on a shelf in the guest room closet next to my chronologically organized photo albums beneath all of those things I hold most dear. “Hello sir, hello sir, see you at the grocer.”

 

Love you, Mom. 

Helen Young Castellana

Helen Young Castellana 

(photo hand colored by Helen)

Helen's Book
mom loved looking at her book
a letter from mom,1965
"Between You and Me" a trove of newly discovered letters await placement in another binder