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Nunc Dimittis

Helen's House

On old house.


I find it funny that the tropes of the Catholic schoolmarm were in my childhood manifested in a Dutch Reformed farm wife: Helen. She ruled with a wooden spoon the dozens of children entrusted to her care. We all feared and loved her. As is the case with many religious sisters, it was a mystery how old she was. Was she ninety? Fifty? I never knew. Her light orange, pink-tinted hair and stern squared jaw never gave it away. She lived a life of celibacy after she was widowed and devoted her life to caring for others’ children. She fed an army every day with pucks of hamburger, mountains of homemade mashed potatoes (the best I’ve ever had), rolls drowning in butter, red Jell-O dotted with sliced banana, and ears upon ears of corn on the cob. Sometimes bologna sandwiches were served as a side.

She fed us like farm hands, and she would often put us to work. After dinner, Helen would give orders to go “tame the cats.” She sent us out uniformed in oven mitts and thick aprons to the barn or the milk house or the old grain bin where we would corner the feral felines that kept multiplying on her acreage. We drew out our plans in the sand with sticks to illustrate how one contingent should wait by the front door, ready to seize any creature that bolted out of the barn, while the others went around back to do the same and yet another squadron would be sent into the fray to rustle the hay bales and lure the scaredy-cats out of hiding. It worked. Once the wild animals were captured, we held them tightly until they stopped biting and scratching. It was a characteristically Helen-istic approach, if you will. We very suddenly and forcefully required these creatures to respect us, and then naturally they accepted and returned our love. Thereafter, they were our pets.

Helen was not just a general. She was a haven. She kept order, but allowed us to roam. As we drove down the crunching gravel road to her farm, the red-shingled roof stood out like a steeple. It signified a sanctuary. To this day, I have a great reverence for that place. When I first read Frost and Willa Cather, they brought me back to scenes of my childhood at Helen’s house. There I could slip away and not be missed. We had an unspoken pact to fiercely protect the freedom we had on that land, and most threats of “I’m telling!” were never made good. One day, my father dropped us off and asked Helen how many children she had that day, to which she replied, “I’ve got ten today!” My dad drove away having counted thirteen. This might have alarmed other parents, but like the rest of us my dad never told. It was part of what made Helen’s house so hallowed. My earliest memories of solitude and contemplation are on Helen’s farm, staring across the plains and listening to the swelling of the wind. I thought a lot about eternity and creation. I encountered my creatureliness and mortality more than once. Someone fell from the hayloft, and once I was nearly gored in the bull pen—neither Helen nor our parents were ever privy to these events. Everyone survived.

There was only one death on the farm, and that was Helen’s. She died just after I turned eighteen. I cried at school. I saw her body in an alcove at Ebenezer Church and thought how good it was that she passed away under that other steeple, the red-roofed farmhouse where she belonged. I hesitate to stop by the farm when I visit home. I drove by once and saw that the roof is now gray. The place has literally dulled without her. But as I learned on pilgrimage to Siena, saints leave behind an unmistakable imprint on the places they lived. I pray for Helen—something she would surely balk at. But trusting in God’s mercy, I would not be surprised to find, when I do get the courage to park and get out of the car, that a bit of her still graces the yard and the outbuildings and the walls of what will always be, to me and many others, Helen’s house.

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Mattie Vennerstrom is a Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow at the Catholic University of America currently writing her dissertation and raising her family from Denver.

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