How Helen met Cliff

Today would be the 75th wedding anniversary of my grandparents Cliff and Helen. In the oral history of her life, Helen talked about how she met Cliff:

I was nineteen when I met him. He asked me if I was twenty-one and I said no. He was twenty-seven, so he was an older guy. I met him at a dance ballroom. In Baltimore, at Gwynn Oak Park, they had a ballroom and an orchestra there and it was fancy. I had gone with my girlfriends. About three of us would go to these USO dances and we would never, ever give anyone our phone number, and we would never let anyone take us home.

After I met Cliff, I danced with him quite a few times. He asked me where I lived, and at that time I lived with my girlfriend, her name was Bertha Mae. She had been my next-door neighbor in Elkins and we had been in the senior play together. I met Cliff, I think it was in August, and over that winter we danced in several of the USO dances. He asked, ‘Are you ever going to give me your phone number?’ And I’d say, ‘Nope. We just don’t do that.’ Then, around Christmastime, another fancy place had a dance. It was called the Alcazar. We were there and I saw my girlfriend dancing with Cliff and I thought, ‘Where’d she find him?’ So I danced with him. And after a few more times of this, he said, ‘How am I ever going to get to know you if you don’t give me your phone number?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘My intentions are honorable.’ [laughs] What do I say then? So I ended up giving my phone number. I didn’t know what to say. So he’d call and we’d go to movies.

It was a very small wedding. Some of his friends in the Army were there. I was taking a huge chance, wasn’t I? He was straightforward. He said just what he thought. He didn’t gloss over a lot of things and pretend they were better. I thought he was a gentleman. And Cliff had a good voice. When dancing, he always sang, ‘cause he knew every song there was.

It seemed like he filled a vacancy in our family. It was the first Christmas without Jake. But that’s when he asked me to marry him. And I said, ‘Oh my goodness, whoa!’ I hadn’t even thought of that, so I said no. But he kept asking me. He wanted to tell my folks and I said no because I knew that they wouldn’t go for that at all. He was at Fort Meade in Maryland and he was being transferred to Nashville, so that’s probably what stepped up this thing. He sent me a ring from Nashville. I was going to go down for a visit in Nashville over Valentine’s Day in February. He kept calling me and finally said, ‘Why don’t you just buy a one-way ticket. Let’s get married.’ So that’s what happened. My mother and dad did not want me to get married. Not at all. But that was the first time I ever did anything that was against their… Well, Cliff just seemed like a nice person. A good person. The Lord was watching out for me, believe me. He was just a gentleman. He had a lot of empathy for people. My mother liked him. My dad never really said anything for a while. It seemed to her, I think, that he sort of took Jake’s place. It seemed like it filled a void there. It just worked. But she thought I was too young. And I know that, I realize that. I was just very fortunate.

Grandma’s dressers

It’s been a year since my Grandma Helen died. I inherited several things from her before and after her death, including a Selectric typewriter and typewriter desk. But of these heirlooms, what I now notice most frequently, and what most often remind me of her, are the dressers.

One horizontal and one vertical, they are massive and sturdy things made of solid wood. We had to rent a U-Haul to get them home. They are properly worn in (but not worn down) by decades of previous use. My grandparents were frugal, but when they made big purchases they were of high quality.

Though I usually notice the distinct burnt orange color first, it’s the smell that triggers the memories. The dressers lived with her for so long that inevitably the aroma I associate with her—a melange of perfumes, deodorants, and who knows what other products that made up her graceful cosmetic presentation—seeped deeply into the wood and now wafts its way to me at random times throughout the day.

Then I think of the time we spent in her apartment baking and talking and laughing at eating grapes together in the final years of her life, and I smile.

Helen Huhta: A Life

“Take care and keep in touch.” My grandma Helen would close every letter she sent to me with that phrase. They were also the final words I said to her on Sunday, before she died yesterday at the age of 92.

After slowly declining for years, she took a turn for the worse this weekend. Jenny and I had already made plans to visit Madison for other reasons, but suddenly there was only one. Hospice was called, other family flew in. She was breathing but unresponsive, opening her eyes only rarely and smiling at whoever was there—that’s Helen for you—but then quickly fading again. We kept watch over her and made sure she was comfortable as we reminisced and discussed what to do with all of her things when the time came. She had moved thrice since leaving Texas after her husband of 63 years died, each time winnowing more and more things.

It was in her first Madison apartment where I began recording my conversations with her. These interviews, which I transcribed along with interviews of her family and friends, became a family oral history of her life. I compiled it into a book and gave her a printed copy for Christmas 2013. She never stopped thanking me for it. She also kept telling people that I wrote it, but I couldn’t get her to realize that I didn’t write it at all. It was her life—and such a life—as told by the people she loved and who loved her.

“Take care and keep in touch.” I could barely speak the words to her as I held her hand for the final time. She meant those words, because she lived them. She made a long life out of caring for people and staying in touch: birthday cards, phone calls about the latest family happenings, letters of encouragement and descriptions of the weather (always the weather).

Jenny and I made dobbins last night in honor of her. If you’ve ever had a Dobbin (or mound bars as she called them), you know Helen. They are her recipe and trademark within the family. Like her, they are sweet but powerful, and you can’t get enough of them. They are also the theme of one of the last emails she sent to me:

I love you too.