Remembering Mother, My Master Weeder

You may have noticed there has been a gap in my posting here. That is because I was otherwise occupied dealing with the last days and death of my Mother. Long-time readers may remember I often referred to her as my Master Weeded (in contrast with the title of Master Gardener). She had a long and rather interesting life. The following is a reprint of a brief history of her life and final days.

My mother was born Helen Hicock January 15, 1926, the second child of the unlikely union of my grandmother Adelaide, a member of the New York art community, and my grandfather Harold, a Connecticut dairy farmer. Helen’s early memories of Southbury, her home town, included splashing around the local swimming hole (where my grandmother, who couldn’t swim a stroke, was the lifeguard), attending a one-room schoolhouse that dated back to the Revolutionary war, and smoking corn silk behind the barn.

Growing up during the Depression, times were tight but not hard for Helen and her sister and brothers. Their maternal grandfather was the top salesman for a grocery distribution company. Even during the worst economic times he managed to arrange for occasional shipments of canned goods to stock the cellar in Southbury. Not everyone in Southbury was as well supplied. Helen would often sneak her friends down to the cellar and pass them some of the canned fruits and vegetables for their families. She never mentioned her mother catching them but I’m sure Adelaide was aware of the smuggling going on.

By the time my mother graduated from high school in 1943 she was a crack typist, a much-needed skill in the days before copiers. Soon after she left the farming community of Southbury and moved to Boston where she lived in a boarding house and supported herself doing clerical work. She remained in Boston through the end of World War II. One of her favorite memories from this period is the first time she saw a television. Her boarding house landlady had purchased one and installed one in the parlor where my mother and the other boarders would huddle together to watch this wonder of post-war technology. Of course, no one thought it would last.

In 1949 Helen decided it was time for a change. A failed engagement to a man who later became a Catholic priest plus the every-increasing pressure from her mother to support the family still at home in Southbury prompted her to flee the East Coast altogether. Boarding a DC-9, one of the early commercial planes, she flew alone out to Los Angeles not knowing a soul there. She spent several months sight-seeing and living off her savings. Then when the money was gone, Helen walked out of her room at the Downtown YMCA, across the street to Union Oil, where she was promptly hired for her excellent typewriting skills.

Her second bold move after this was to enroll in the Art Institute of California. L.A. was a bustling, growing city in the Post-War era. She wanted to leverage her artistic abilities inherited from Grandmother Adelaide to become a graphic artist. There was no doubt she had the talent. She told me that whenever the students displayed their un-signed work, hers frequently got top honors. But being a woman put her at a distinct disadvantage. One instructor told her she would never be able to make it in this male-dominated world.

Right around the corner from the YMCA where Mother lived while she worked and went to school was the Church of the Open Door, one of the nationally known non-denominational churches of this era. Coming from a Congregationalist background Helen felt it was proper to attend church (respectable ladies always attended church) but did not feel any strong need for God or forgiveness of sin. After all, she hadn’t done anything really bad. But God had other plans for her and she became convinced of her need for the salvation offered through Jesus Christ. This was the beginning of her walk with the Lord which she remained faithful in to the very end.

Not long after being saved, my mother began dating young men she met in Sunday School. She didn’t quite know what she was looking for but one thing was certain – she didn’t want to marry a farmer as her mother had. Then one day her friend Beverly had someone she wanted to introduce to Helen. I can still hear Mom saying, “Here was this skinny guy – and darned if he didn’t look just like a farmer!” Somehow he got past this initial bad impression. Not long afterward, while Fourth of July fireworks exploded over the Pasadena Rose Bowl, my father Merrill Heck managed to pop the question. They were married not long after in a private ceremony at the home of their pastor, Dr. J. Vernon McGee.

Two years later I was born, precipitating yet another change for Helen and Merrill. Now that they had a family it was time to find – or in their case build – a home. Within months of my birth, they were hard at work on a house – from foundation to roof – on property in a farming community given to them by my paternal grandfather. Helen once again found herself living with orchards, vegetable gardens, and livestock in the country.

I’ll pass lightly over the next twenty-five years. Very little of note happened beyond the joys and trials of everyday life, raising a child, paying the mortgage, and vacationing in the mountains of California. Then without warning Merrill died of a massive heart attack, leaving Helen a widow at 54.

Once she recovered from the shock Helen decided it was time for another trip – a real trip somewhere overseas. My father had been terrified of flying so any vacations they had were taken by car. Free of this restraint Mother thought Africa sounded nice so she applied for a passport and booked passage on a safari in Kenya. Why there? When I asked her this very question she said, “Well, I have several places I’d like to go but this is probably the most dangerous so I think I should go there first.” Her trip to Africa was followed by one to Europe and finally mainland China.

After she had satisfied here wanderlust, circumstances changed in the community where she was living making it advisable to sell her home and move in with Gene and me. She has stayed with us ever since then.

What did I learn from Mother during our 62 years together? I learned that the world was a wonderful place full of interesting discoveries. I developed an appreciation for classical music and fine art from an early age. I still remember listening to the Nutcracker Suite and An American in Paris played on old 78’s that I was admonished to handle very carefully. She also helped me explore the natural world. Whenever we went on vacation we would take guide books of birds and wildflowers. I delighted in discovering something new and looking it up with Mother in those books.

I also learned from her how to deal with life’s ups and downs. When trouble comes, don’t ignore it. Look on the bright side because it is always there. Treat everyone with the same respect you would wish in return. And above all, be careful what you start, but once started, be sure to finish well.

All these life lessons taught to me were a natural outgrowth of her walk with the Lord. I won’t pretend that Mother was perfect but I can say with conviction that she persevered in her faith. Even as her life neared the end I would often hear her tell me how thankful she was for God’s provision for her.

When the end came, it was mercifully brief. People with osteoporosis can have a bone break from something as simple as standing up. That is how she broke her right femur one Friday afternoon. She went immediately to the hospital and had surgery the following day for a partial hip replacement. Mom sailed through the surgery but at her age the whole procedure was a blow to the system from which she never completely recovered. The weekend after surgery she suffered a stroke and heart attack in swift succession leaving here in grave condition. After consultation with the doctors, and a heart-to-heart talk between me and Mom, it was decided to transfer her to a hospice. Four days later she passed from this life to be with her Lord and Savior. My mother began the Christian life 65 years ago. Last month, she finished well. She had kept the faith.

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