My Aunt Helen’s birthday falls on March 17th, St. Patricks’ Day. Being a teetotaler her whole life, shots of Jameson and copious amounts of Green Beer never factored into her celebrations. Aunt Helen left this earth three years ago, at the age of 93. Most of her life was spent in Kingston, Iowa which is 15 miles past Burlington, but before you get to Mediapolis. Kingston is tiny, clustered around an unimposing intersection off State Highway 99. There are a few houses and one general store which doubled as the post office. It also boasts a now-shuttered hall above it that held rousing dances in its heyday. A Methodist church that Helen’s husband, Willard helped to build stands just down the road from the general store. My parents were married there. Willard also built their snug home across the gravel road from the church. Built as in — built it on his own from pouring the foundation to putting on the roof, and all the plumbing in between. This home is about 5 miles away from the “Home Farm” where my Aunt Helen and my father and their brother Howard Lee (who died on the kitchen table at the age of 7 from a burst appendix) grew up. There are still 2nd and 3rd cousins who live out on that same land. Most of it is used to grow corn now, corn is still a pretty good crop, better than hogs, and without the smell.
When you backtrack towards Burlington on 99, on the hill side of the road you’ll find a faded signpost that reads “Basil Cemetery”. If you have a 4-wheel drive, you can ascend the hill via a faint track to the cemetery, or park and walk up if you don’t. There are fifteen or twenty markers scattered among the trees on that hill. They overlook the green cornfields, and not far off, you can see the glint of light that is the mighty Mississippi. It’s a beautiful, restful spot, and several of my relatives are buried there. It’s mostly forgotten now and hasn’t seen a burial in many years. Helen chose to be buried up in Mediapolis next to Willard, who got a 21-gun salute at his funeral. I suspect once I go, no one will know Basil Cemetery is there. Hard to get the caskets up the hill. My Aunt Helen and I would go up there on Memorial Day to clean the headstones and put fresh flowers out – early roses and giant-headed peonies just coming into pink bloom from her side yard. And always sweet Lily of the Valley, which seem to bloom in every ditch there is in May and June in Iowa.
Aunt Helen taught in the one-room schoolhouse that served the kids in the area all the way up to the 1950’s, when the county decided to close the school and bus the kids to Burlington. She started teaching at age 16, to avoid working in the local chocolate factory. She had tried the chocolate factory when she was 14, and hated it, so quick went and took the correspondence classes to become a teacher. Helen was a fine teacher, wrote in perfect copperplate, and could teach you advanced math faster than you could learn how to spit. She’d ride her horse seven miles to the school early in the morning from the Home Farm so she could get the stove going to warm the place up. She’d have the bigger boys go chop more wood when they needed it. My father went to this school and suffered through being taught by his sister who was 12 years older than he for a few grades before my grandmother moved him to Burlington schools. They remember seeing electricity finally making its way to that schoolhouse, and the wonder of an electric heater. Helen said the old wood stove worked better.
Aunt Helen married Willard just shy of her 19th birthday, as he was shipping out to active duty in WWII. He was stationed in the Pacific, fixing the planes, and getting shot at a lot. He never said much about it to me, or anyone else that I can tell. Willard was a staunch pacifist in his later years. Always a man of few words, he’d take me back up in the hills when I would visit them for a few weeks each summer and showed me how to spring the traps left there by hunters. He was also a whiz at finding Indian arrowheads. Sometimes I wondered if he planted them before our walks. He’d just point to the ground and say, “Well lookee there”, and give me the joy of discovery.
Those were some fine, hot summer weeks that I spent with them. I was put to work helping Helen “put up” the vegetables and fruits from her garden for days on end, the kitchen steaming from sterilizing the Mason jars in big pots, taking the finished projects down to the blessed dark cool of the cellar. I am proud to say I could still put up vegetables if I needed to. Summer nights were for sitting on the porch, hand cranking fresh peach ice cream, and watching a million fireflies light up the grass and trees like Christmas lights come early. I loved getting my aunt to tell funny stories about my dad when he was little, it made him more emotionally accessible. He would certainly never tell me about the time he jumped off the roof wearing a sheet pretending to be Superman, but Helen would.
Helen was never the same after Willard died. She tried to stay active at the church, and made wedding dresses for the children and grandchildren of the kids she had taught at school until she went blind. We’d send her books on tape, she liked those. I took my boys to visit, and she gave them a few things from her house – knew right where they were, even though she couldn’t see them anymore. Those got burnt up in The Fire, as were all the photos we had of Helen and Willard, and my grandmother’s wedding silver Helen passed on to me. Helen finally had to move out of the home her husband built and where they had lived for over 65 years. She hated being in the nursing home, got confused often, and demanded to be taken home. When the doctors and nurses wouldn’t let her leave, I think she used her formidable willpower to pass over to be back Home with Willard. Helen lived what many would deem a small life, but both she and Willard made a difference in their community and passed on things that were important to them; being kind, doing for your neighbor, the ability to fix, and mend, and cook. The joy of sitting on the porch in the evening savoring sweet peach ice cream made from peaches you had grown in your very own back yard.