She Taught my Father to Read

As you may know, my father comes from a large family (14 kids). My dad’s oldest surviving sister Helen, preceded by two older sisters, Leona and Maxine, who did not survive childhood; two older brothers, Robert and John; and the youngest brother, Jim, died this morning at 2:00 am.

Leukemia was the cause, she was diagnosed last spring when she displayed sudden symptoms of anemia.  She had two children, Billy Warner, by her first husband, Jerry Warner, who was murdered by one of his sisters’ husbands who was “trying to kill himself”.  He surprised Jerry with a shotgun when he went out to feed the chickens he had started to raise on the small farm he rented.  Helen and the infant Billy were left inside, unmolested, while Jerry’s killer (I can’t recall his name, this was 4 years before I was born), headed off to be caught later in a traffic violation.

(Jerry was also the brother of Catherine Warner, my uncle Robert’s wife.  Yes, a brother from one family married a sister in another, and her brother married the sister of the first man.  Robert’s and Helen’s families went to both the Osborn and Warner family reunions.  This happened in three consecutive generations of the Osborn family.  My Grandmother Violet Louise Brown’s sister (I think it was Billy) married my Grandfather William Frederick Osborn’s brother Elsie.  My uncle Robert’s two boys, Mike and Greg, married Beverly and Roberta Herrera, respectively.  Freakish, but legal and not at all incestuous, except for the family reunion horseshit.)

Billy will be fine, he’s pretty self-reliant, always has been, he was quite a bit older than me (I have cousins who are 13 years older than me and ones who are 33 years younger); but one thing I will always remember is the trick he taught me and my brother of how to fold your belt over itself and snap it to make a whip cracking noise.  My uncle Jim used to do that to “frighten” us, but I never saw how, Billy and his (and my) uncle Jim were closer in age, so they got along really well and teased us younger “kids” a lot.  The reason he taught us was that we were staying at aunt Helen’s house (funny, we’d never stayed there before).  I was 7 and my mother’s father, Robert Henry “Hank” Anderson, had died suddenly while we were camping, she was unconsolable.  My mother and father had the fortune of a large family who (once) pulled together and helped each other out where they could deposit their children and deal with their own loss and how to tell their two young boys their best friend had died.

Janey is Helen’s daughter by Kenny Hill.  Uncle Kenny was a great guy, he met Helen through church; he had lost his wife and son in an automobile accident (drunk driver) about the time that Jerry was killed.  He loved kids, he was always Santa at the Christmas reunion (where everybody in the family showed up, when grandma and grandpa Osborn were still alive–1983), because grandpa was too “grumpy”.  He died a few years ago, cancer I believe.

Janey.  I worry about Janey.  She and Helen were very close– best friends and not in a weird way.  She kept Helen active, healthy and connected.  Helen looked great before she got sick (she was going to be 83 this fall) and Janey was why.  Many of my remaining aunts (Mona, Ada, Patty and Shirley) have either succumbed to hypochondria or cat-lady-itis (hey– no names were associated with afflictions!).  Janey is going to be alone– oh, she’ll have Billy, and my folks when they are not wintering in Florida, aunt Patty and uncle Chuck and aunt Rachel; but she’s not really connected to the family at large (bad blood and feuds there– some awful things were said by some people in the family about her mom and she has every right to be angry; but isolation is not a good solution).  I worry about Janey.

As the title says, Helen taught my father to read.  She would have been about 12 when my dad was old enough to read. That would have been around 1944.  There were, as I said, a lot of kids on the farm– there was a brief time (about 6 months) right before Robert left for Korea that all 12 of the surviving kids were on the farm at once.  With so many children and so many things to be done on the farm, older kids took over the roles that their parents did.  In many ways Helen was like a mother to dad.  Oh, grandma was far from inattentive, but he had a special relationship with Helen he could not have with his next oldest sister Mona, born in 1937.  Helen was moving into an age where she was recognizing her role (as defined then) as a farm-wife and mother.

She was a hard worker, Helen. As a young woman, she often worked on the farm as hard as the boys did (this is how one earned grandpa’s favor). The fact that her body was not built to lift the kind of weight she did left her with severe back problems later in life (as it did with most of my aunts).

She was lucky enough to live what I call the “plateau life”.  An initial youthful climb to a steady high that does not decline until suddenly and precipitously at the end.  No peaking at 30 and an long slow decline into a powered chair at 55 used more to compensate for obesity than disability– she was active right up to the end.  My only regret was that when my brother Steve Jr. was in Newton for my uncle Robert’s funeral, Helen was too sick to see him.  I’d seen her every time I went back for at least 5 years, twice a year, but Steve can’t get there that often.

She squabbled with her sisters and brothers once before the squabbling turned to stubborn silence marked by years of growing resentment. Some scars don’t heal.  No one is perfect; but I loved her just the same.  She shaped the most important man in my life.


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