Sunday, October 08, 2006


An October Moment...

...but not the moment you were expecting.

October 28, 1972

My mom called this weekend to nail down the final details of their bi-annual trip. This time next week, they should be here.

In addition to the usual news from home, my mom reported some difficult information about Great-Aunt Helen, my late grandfather's sister. Helen's in her early 90s and since she was in her 30s, she has kept house in the brownstone on East Boadway in South Boston. But no longer. This week her daughter moved her to a nursing home after it was determined she'd had a series of mini-strokes that apparently added up to a big one. In the space of a month, she's gone from a spry, sharp old gal who still made brownies every time I came to visit, to a shadow of her former self, an old lady confined to bed and only brief periods of lucidity.

"She doesn't really respond to anyone in the room when she's awake," my mom reported. "She mostly keeps telling Jimmy to call the priest and not to throw out the couch."

In other words, she was reliving the death of her husband, my great-uncle Coleman, a man I never met.

Uncle Coley's death was probably the second most profound event in Helen's life. He was, by all accounts, a great man, large in stature, in heart, in spirit. He was the sun around which Helen and her family orbited, and she wasn't the only one who could say that. Coley was, apparently, the man my grandfather most admired and tried to be like, although they led very different lives.

Coley was a detective on the Boston police force, and an unusual one. Unusual in that he was pretty clean by department standards. I can't say that he never got favors or money or special treatment because of his position--I mean, really, how does a family of six afford a three-story brownstone on a cop's salary?--but he was a straight arrow, relatively speaking.

He was unusual in one other important regard. He had, in the words of my grandmother, "a weakness for mysticism." He believed in paranormal phenomena. As a young man, he'd been fascinated with "talking boards" or Ouija boards, as they are more commonly known. He read Fate magazine. He had attended seances. He was one of the first detectives in the history of the Boston police department--if not in all of law enforcement--to consult a psychic on an active case (in the late 1940s. There is, of course, no record of it. And those in my family who remember the story have conflicting views on whether the psychic helped Coley or not).

To the consternation of his parish priest, Coley insisted that he had seen ghosts and could feel "emanations." If he'd been less responsible and solid in all other aspects of his life, it would have been easy to dismiss Coley as a crackpot. But he wasn't. He was a good cop. He went to church every Sunday and Holy Day. He almost never drank. Indeed, his only vice was for pipe tobacco--he smoked Prince Albert (yes, he had Prince Albert in a can). And so his predilections for the unseen were viewed as a kind of harmless eccentricity.

Even my aunt didn't know what to make of it. Mostly she was scared of my uncle's ideas about ghosts, especially when he promised to come back to her. Truth. Just after they got married, he used to say, "Helen, if I go first, I'll come back and give you a sign. Nothing frightening, no chains and groans. Just a wink and a nod to let you know it's all right." He meant it as a comfort, but I don't think it's telling tales out of school to say he freaked her right the fuck out, so much so that after a while, he stopped promising her that he'd come back from the grave to tell her how things were going.

In 1962, Coley came home from an all-night investigation and lay down on the couch in the parlor to get an hour or two of sleep. He often worked nights and, rather than wake anyone up, he took a snooze in the parlor until Helen got up to make breakfast. He never knew that Helen woke up the moment she heard the familiar scuff of his leather shoes in the hall.

And Helen didn't know--until later, anyway--that the moment Coley laid down on the sofa in the parlor of the brownstone on Broadway, a massive heart attack struck him like a lightning bolt. Aunt Helen found him lying so peacefully on the couch when she got up to make breakfast, she didn't even realize he was gone until she had his coffee on the kitchen table. Coley always woke up at the smell of coffee.

When the realization hit, Helen couldn't even go into the parlor. She simply called for her youngest son and told him matter-of-factly, "Ya fathah's dead on the couch. Run down to St. Brigid's and get the priest." It was a minor scandal that she didn't call a doctor or an ambulance first, but only a minor scandal. As Helen said that day and years afterward, "I knew he was gone as soon as I set the coffee on the table. What was the point of calling the doctor? He needed bigger help than that." Despite his weakness for mysticism, the priest gave Coley last rites and he was laid to rest with a full funeral mass, police honor guard, the works.

Helen forgot all about Coley's promise.

Ten years later, on a cold night just before Halloween, Helen was coming out of the supermarket with a small bag of groceries. Her son Jimmy, who still lived at home, was sick and she wanted to get him the Campbell's soup he liked.

As she crossed in front of an alley, two guys jumped her and pulled her into the darkness. Helen should have thrown her purse and run, but she was a spry gal who didn't suffer scumbags lightly. She held on, forcing one of the men to grab her roughly and push her to the pavement, breaking her collarbone. She started screaming bloody murder, from the pain, and from the fear. So the other man pulled out a switchblade, intent on quieting her forever.

Then both men stopped in their tracks.

As Helen later recalled (and I remember well sitting on the couch in her parlor--yes, that couch--hearing this story at the impressionable age of 5), both men were not looking down at her, but up at a point over her shoulder, a horrible species of fear etched on their faces. They dropped the purse and ran the other way as fast as their legs could carry them.

Helen fainted then, but before she did, she swore she heard a familiar scuff of leather shoes on the pavement and could smell the unmistakable odor of Prince Albert pipe tobacco enveloping her like a warm blanket. Then she woke up in the hospital.

That was the most profound event in Helen's life. And she never tired of reliving it.

Now she lies in another bed, remembering the day she last saw her husband. Does she also remember the night she last heard from him, the night he reached out to let her know it was all right?

I hope so.

When I was about 10, after hearing the story of Uncle Coley's Return for the umptyump time, I asked her, "Are you going to come back and give us a sign, Aunt Helen?"

She patted my cheek. "Ah, who knows, hon? Maybe I will. Nothing too scary. Just a wink and a nod. Just a wink and a nod," she said. Then she smiled.

I've been waiting for that sign for nearly 30 years. But right now, I'm not quite ready for it to come.

Be well, Aunt Helen.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I'm saying a prayer for her! Don't you love that you're so blessed with such a colorful family? :)
i'm sorry, mm. i think getting old sucks as much for the people around you as it does for you.

thanks, btw, for the link. did you know you have kapgar twice?
I'm sorry MM- are we ever? Well wishes and healing prayers to you and your family-
Your great-aunt has lived a long and likely remarkable life, if not for any other reason then at least for being a member of your family. It's great that she has such caring people to hold onto her days and memories for her.

Hang in there MM, and best wishes to all yours.
Another great story!!!

When my great grandfather passed away (right after his 70th wedding anniversary) we tried to move my great grandfather to a retirement center. She refused to go - because how would "Pops" find her. He did, after all, come and check on her every night.

Still gives me the chills.

Hey - I'm making this story my "Weekly Delight" - because it really is a sweet ever-after story.
I never tire of writing these words: Bravo! You are an astonishing writer. This post was as breathtaking as so many of yours. Very moving, very enveloping. Thank you, thank you for giving it away.
Here from Dreaming What Ifs for Click and Comment Monday. Had to read your story.

I will pray for an immediate resolution of Helen's health. May she recover swiftly or die peacefully in her sleep. You know it is what she would want.

God bless.
Here's to Great Aunt Helen! With, of course, a wink and a nod from the Blue Ridge.
God speed..Aunt Helen.
Oh, MM, I'm sorry to hear that you Aunt Helen isn't doing so well. I hope that she does still remember her October moment and that she knows, somehow, how wonderfully you've portrayed her here.
I'm sorry to hear your great-aunt isn't doing well, MM. Here's to improved health and knowing your loved ones are looking out for you wherever they may be.
Wouldn't Coley feel vindicated by the current success of the many very popular TV shows about mediums/psychics today? Coley was ahead of his time.

I'd say that Aunt Helen is "living" proof that we are being watched and protected by those that have passed on. It comforts me, knowing that.

I pray Helen has peace and comfort too.
Beautiful story.
A wonderfully, entertaining, well-written story, even though it does have a bittersweet ending. At least you have the memories. I'm sorry your great-aunt has had to leave her home. Seems as though, that really confuses the elderly when they end up in a place they are not familiar with.
The only thing I can possibly say is that I am absolutely in love with the fact you take photos of your dog's vomit. Not once, but at least four times. You Rock! And then, you count the wrappers? Dude.
Wonderful story, as usual. Your Aunt Helen is certainly being watched over, so whatever happens, it will be for the good. You know that, right? Of course you do.
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