Monday, October 15, 2012

Bad Dreams and Aunt Helen Jean

Napped this afternoon--hoped the down time would do something about this vicious headache, but I should have known better.  Headaches like this don't just go away--they're borne of wowser stress, and only go away when the scary stuff resolves.  Hopefully tomorrow.

I dreamed about my Aunt Helen Jean.  I do that a lot.  Dreamed about Hallstead, about her house, and about the barn across the way--an old business converted to stable, arena, and office for my Uncle Bob's and Aunt Helen Jean's Arabian horse biz.  As usual, my brain twisted up the geography of Hallstead and the house/barn.  It's funny, because Hallstead is ingrained in me, yet I always dream it different.  I always dream it with the old steel bridge still spanning the Susquehanna. 

In this dream?  Helen Jean was dead, and we all knew it.  She knew it.  So we (hubby and I) were at her house, waiting for my mom and sister to show up so we could all get together and have one last meal.  I went to the kitchen to get a glass of water while Helen Jean reclined on the sofa.  I noticed she had been cleaning out her cabinets and fridge (being dead, she wanted to leave the place neat).  I noticed meat and other perishables in a bag on the counter.  I called out, asked if she wanted me to put them in the fridge.  She said she didn't.  I pushed, not wanting things to go bad.  She heaved a sigh and rose from the sofa, wandered into the kitchen, and began putting things away.  I protested, said I was happy to do it, she should rest.  She refused, continued restocking the fridge with those painfully thin, pale hands.  I said, "Helen Jean, please--please let me do this for you.  Please!  You've never let me help, you've never let me do for you--let me do this.  Please." 

She refused. 

So I sat there on a kitchen chair--a chair at that same kitchen table where I had so many wonderful meals when I was younger--and cried, watching her pained efforts. 

Doesn't that suck? 

My Aunt Helen Jean (sometimes known as just "Helen") died late March, 2011.  No one called.  No one wrote.  No one emailed.  I found her obituary quite by accident while checking the Hallstead area news online one day.  I hadn't spoken to Helen Jean in a little over three months--since right before Christmas.  Her health had been deteriorating one miserable thing at a time since my Uncle Bob (my mom's brother) had died a few years earlier.  She was quite obviously contracting in on herself, had asked that we not send Christmas or birthday gifts anymore because it was too difficult for her to get out and about to return the favor.  Of course, I told her she didn't NEED to return the favor, but Helen Jean took her social niceties very seriously, and the idea of receiving a gift and not reciprocating rankled. 

Upon learning of her death, I cried.  I cried a LOT.  I had so hoped she would rally, had hoped she would get that last trip to Sonoma in with her niece (her sister's daughter).  I hoped that we would get moved back east to be nearer her before she died.  I hoped my son would get a chance to more than meet her a few times.  But it didn't happen--her health nosedived, and she died hard. 

Know what did happen?

Some of the foulest, lousiest, most ill-mannered meanness I've ever encountered.

Rather than hurl accusations or yell at not being called, I ordered flowers and a card for Helen Jean's sister (the aforementioned niece's mother).  I sent a letter expressing my sorrow and sympathy.  I also mentioned that, via my Grandpa and Uncle Bob, Helen Jean had been in possession of many family photos, mementos, clippings, etc.  These are things related to my mom's side of the family.  I said that I would be very happy to pay for the shipping, or, if the niece and her mom wanted to keep them, I would be glad to pay for the making of copies.  After all, while these things aren't related to their family at all, we considered them part of our family.

I thought I was being nice.  Reasonable.  Sympathetic.  Kind, even.

I got no response.  Nothing.  After months, I dug around online and found my Aunt Helen Jean's attorney's number and called.  They were thrilled to hear from us, because, according to them, Helen Jean's family was being completely uncooperative when it came to finding me, my sister, and my mom.  I gave them our information, and then asked if there was a problem, if perhaps that part of the family was struggling somehow.  The attorney's secretary?  Laughed and said something on the order of, "No, they're just not very nice."  She recounted a dust-up in the attorney's office that involved shouting and name-calling.  Certainly NOT the way I remembered Helen Jean's family.  However, Helen Jean was very close to her niece, and I could certainly understand being distraught and emotional at such an awful time.

I waited a while longer, then wrote another letter.  In the mean time, my sister began trying to call.  She actually got a kid on the line who yelled, "Mom, it's for you!"  She heard a woman ask, "Who is it?"  When he gave my sister's name, there was some whispering, and then the boy said, "She's not here."  That happened more than once.


Understand, I've had no bad experiences with these people.  In fact, I remember my Aunt's niece fondly from when I was a teen.  So this was a shock for me; I was blindsided.

My sister did finally get through, after months of trying.  The answer she got?  My Aunt's family was so traumatized by her death that, even a year and change later, they hadn't gotten around to going through Helen Jean's home.  When they did, IF there was anything there they felt we had some claim to, they'd let us know.  And then silence.

The other letter?  No response to that, either.  There may have been another letter, I don't remember.  But then I decided to try writing my Aunt's sister again, since the niece was so obviously unwilling to engage.  Again, my letter was the picture of politeness.  I even mentioned that, now that my family was on the east coast, I would be happy to come up to Hallstead and lend a hand in anything that needed to be done, save them the heartache and stress.  What I got in return?

Amazing.  Devastating.

I got a letter from the niece.  A letter admonishing me to not drive up to Hallstead and break into my Aunt and Uncle's house.  No, she didn't use the term "break in," she said something like, "do not enter the premises."  Seriously!  Like I ever would!  She made it clear that she STILL hadn't gone through the house (I cringe to think what must be going on in my Aunt's beautiful home after over a year-and-a-half of standing unoccupied), and also hinted that she didn't think there was anything there--that my Aunt may have thrown it all away. I was then instructed to never contact her mother again--that any and all contact, should there be a need, should be with her.  Period.  I can't even describe how insulting it was.

Understand that this whole experience has really poisoned my memories of my Aunt.  Learning that she had her animals (she had many) all destroyed upon her death hit me hard.  Wondering what she may have said to her niece and family to make them treat me this way?  Devastating.  Even so, I know one thing--there's no WAY my Aunt would have thrown away family photos and mementos that weren't hers to dispose of.  She took being proper and being correct way too seriously to do something that awful.

Not that it matters.  We're clearly not ever going to get these things back.  Understand, I only have a couple of pictures of Helen Jean, and only a few of my Uncle Bob.  I have only a couple pictures of my Grandma and Grandpa, and only one of my Grand Uncle Herbert.  I have NONE of my Grandpa and Herbert's siblings or parents, nor of my Grandma's family.  These are things I will never be able to share with my son or niece and nephew.  There is no other family that might have these things.  They were in a chest in the guest bedroom (used to be my Grandpa's bedroom) at Bob and Helen Jean's house.  The chest was brimming with my family's history.  I feel robbed.

Do I have legal recourse?  Who knows?  I can't even afford to get my car legal, how can I afford an attorney?  It's not like there's a big payoff here, I'm not after the house, I'm just after a chest with family photos and the like in it.  Plus, the niece is an attorney.  So that's that.  I'm out my family's history, I'm out my happy memories of my Aunt Helen Jean.  It is breathtakingly sad.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry. I know how it feels to have those deeply emotional issues that you cannot resolve, because the other parties involved will not cooperate. It's no wonder it comes out in your dreams.
    I don't understand why people have to be so selfish and mean. I've hauled photo albums around through half a dozen moves, from old roommates that haven't talked to me in years, and my brother who is always in jail, because they might one day care enough to want them back. I can't bring myself to toss them out. One the other hand, my ex's family left his parents' house sitting empty for years, and didn't care about any of the things in it. I cleaned out several rooms but didn't throw anything away. (I was very close to his parents) Most of the things that his mom had given me over the years, well, he smashed them in alcoholic rage fits. When we broke up, I asked if I could have a few things that I knew were going to be tossed out, and they wouldn't let me have anything. We're talking stuff that was bought at the DI, and that they had asked me to get rid of before. Anything I asked about would disappear from the house. I heard accusations like, "she'll trash the house" and "we have to protect our house," as if I had been acting crazy. Not only that, his sister and her family, who I'd never fought with, whose kids I'd been an aunt to for their entire lives, immediately started treating me like a pariah. I just don't get it. They could have been amicable, let me take what I wanted,(always with their supervision, I could have raided the house without asking but I didn't) and never heard from me again. They sold the house and left a lot of the stuff there for the new owners to deal with. I drove past and saw a trailer loaded with trash for the junkyard, and of course there were some of the things I'd asked for.
    I did say a few nasty things on FB, I'm not proud of that, but for the most part I tried to be like you, polite and business-like. I feel better about that than if I'd fought with them. At least we have our memories, huh?