RIP, Helen Kelly

My mother-in-law Helen Kelly died last Tuesday in her eightieth year. (Photo courtesy of the Kelly family.)

We all knew this moment was coming, and somehow it still is hard to fully accept that it’s here.

helen C. Kelly, born Helena Chmielewski, my elegant, intelligent, strong, endlessly giving mother-in-law, died at home and surrounded by family as she wished, 79 years old, or, as she liked to say, in her eightieth year.

During her childhood in a cold-water flat in Enfield, Connecticut, this daughter of Polish immigrants absorbed lessons of hard work, the centrality of family and the importance of savoring all of life’s experiences.  From her family she also learned about honesty, integrity, self-reliance, and the tenacity to not give up on what she wanted.

Helen always remembered what it was like to grow up not having much, and she carried an unwavering generosity with her throughout her life.

She was one of the most giving people I ever met.

She gave in so many different ways.

To the world she gave the beauty that saw her named head cheerleader and Tobacco Valley Queen, that led the quarterback of the football team to ask permission to date her and that, in the early 50s, caught the eye of a lean, lanky and gallant young man from Hungry Hill via Pittsfield named Marty Kelly.

We know where that went.

Helen retained her beauty throughout her life, her figure slender, her hair perfectly coiffed after her weekly trip to Angel’s shop, her nails and jewelry just so. Even at Marty’s funeral last year, two classmates from the Enfield years came and you could tell they still saw the younger woman in the setting sun they saw before them, and liked both equally.  Helen’s beauty was not just physical, of course, but in  how she carried herself with such a dignified grace.

Helen gave to the children of Springfield, with whom she worked tirelessly for 30 years in many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. She started as a teacher and made her way up the ranks, working the last decade of her career as a principal.

Helen gave to her lady friends, with whom she lunched and golfed and laughed and discussed books and went to Florida and to whom she listened with compassion and without judgment to their stories of children and husbands and grandchildren, of ailments, defeats and triumphs.

Above all, though, she gave to family.

Helen treasured each one of her family members, from her parents Gladys and Anthony to her sister Binkie, her niece Pam and her family, to Marty and the three kids, her in-laws and her seven grandchildren.

Our son Aidan once called her the perfect grandmother, and he was right.  Helen was everything a Babci should be – kind, ceaselessly generous, never ruffled, willing to dispense advice when necessary, always claiming and loving Aidan, Dylan, Colin, Jacob, Regan, Sarah and Lucy with a gentle fierceness.

When she received her diagnosis in late May, Helen did not sit around Western Massachusetts and start treatment. Instead she boarded a plane with Dunreith and flew out to Chicago, where she watched Aidan get ready for his prom and graduate from high school.  She needed a little help walking around and sitting in the stands for hours during the ceremony wasn’t easy, but Helen neither complained nor missed a second.

Nothing was going to keep her from seeing her oldest grandson dressed up in a tux and receiving the diploma that marked the end of his childhood and his readiness to go out into the world.

She not only gave life to Shaun, Dunreith and Josh, she also gave them the gift of permission to truly be themselves.  Those of you who have met any of them for even a short period know that she succeeded in that.  Their individuality can make for lively discussion and an assertive decision-making process, and Helen wouldn’t have it any other way.

Helen transmitted a basic level of confidence, of unconditional acceptance that let you know you were seen and cherished and one of hers. She’d also let you know gently but firmly if you were stepping over the line, always conveying an unshakeable love that emanated from within her core.

Fortunately, to Helen, family meant me, too.

We had a mutual admiration society in which we would chant #1 to each other three times on the phone, punctuated by a whoop.

Helen encouraged me throughout our courtship and marriage, during our morning chats to start the day, in the supportive cards she wrote and sent on expected and unexpected occasions, in the blue sweater she sent when I got my first job as a reporter with benefits, and in how she gave Dunreith, Aidan and me the space we needed to build our lives together.  All of our interactions were encased in her base level confidence that I could face and meet the challenges in front of me.

Helen told me she believed in me, and I am a better husband, father and man because of her many gifts.

Yet as much as she gave to others, she also gave to herself.

Helen had a tremendous ability to experience pleasure in the moment, whether drinking a late afternoon Scotch with Marty, looking at a bird that had flown near her window at 11 Ridgewood, using her sturdy fingers and strong wrist to extract every last morsel of lobster from a claw and leg while we were in Maine, listening to a Tom Waits song, sharing a bag of chips with Dunreith, holding Lucy while visiting with Josh and Rebecca, shopping at Brimfield with Shaun and caring for his three children, and so many more.

Like the time, at a family wedding, after a couple of drinks, she danced and walked around with a flower clenched between her teeth-a combination that prompted Marty to say, “Oh, boy.”

Or, just a few a weeks ago,  when she came to after her appendix surgery, looked at Josh and Shaun, her two grown sons, and said, repeatedly,  “What a party.”

That was Helen.

She gave herself the gift of travel, to Chicago many times with Marty to visit us, and, with Dunreith, to Israel, Germany and Poland, her family’s homeland that she had never seen.

She also gave herself and us the example of a life in which she did not give up on her heartfelt desires.

Some people advised her not to get a driver’s license, but she did it.

She not only when back to school while a mother of two to earn her undergraduate degree, she later went on to earn a Master’s besides.

She could have stayed in the classroom, but she served the last 10 years of her career as a principal.

Helen continued giving until the very end.

In the week before she died, Dunreith put me on speaker phone.  I did our little chant, but not too loudly, then told her I loved her.

“Love you, too,” her voice came back, a little scratchy but unmistakably clear.

Finally, Helen gave us the gift of how she died.

She chose to go home and be with her family, ready for, and unafraid of, what would come afterward.

“When the carriage shuts down, the ride is over,” she said at one point in the hospital. “It’s time to stop.”

And she did, with Dunreith and Shaun and Josh all working together to honor her wish to spend her final days at home.

Helen’s death was in total keeping with how she lived and made me again appreciate in a different way the wonder and privilege of having known her.

Helen gave and gave and gave.

Because she gave and how she lived, thousands of children who might not otherwise have done so can read and have sought adventure in the world.

Because she gave, family and friends alike can walk around knowing they are loved and can realize their deepest dreams.

Because she gave, we are all here and know that we will carry her with us.

The love Helen gave and how she lived came back to her over and over, through Dunreith spending months in Western Massachusetts the last summer of her mother’s life,  through Shaun and Josh doing whatever they could to be there for Helen, through the whole family getting together at Larry and Ginna’s  on July 4thweekend, and, one last time, in Rockport, where everyone ate lobster, went to the beach, bowled and drank in each other’s company.

Thank you, Helen.

Thank you, #1.

I thank you.

I will miss you.

I love you.

With Helen and Aidan in July, the last time he saw her. (Photo courtesy of the Kelly family.)





3 responses to “RIP, Helen Kelly

  1. Jeff, I’m so sorry for your loss. It was a joy to read about her life. Please give our love to Dunreith and Aidan, we’ll be thinking of you.
    Terri, Mike and Maddie

  2. We are sad for you and Dunreith and Aiden, but you have shown great strength and humanity preparing for this inevitability, and we are sure you will cope in the same manner in the coming days. With love, Lynn and Frank

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