My father’s Aunt Helen will live on in “Doc Gooding and Mrs. Parker,” my story set near Jawbone Canyon during the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1909. While Mrs. Parker is a plucky writer and activist based more on the real writer Mary Austin, the accident that launches the story is drawn from Aunt Helen’s life.
Aunt Helen was a gifted storyteller and during one visit in the late 1990s she told me about how she fell from a horse as a young girl. I was fascinated by the way her arm broke — her elbow pointed in the wrong direction and the bone jutted from her skin. Yet the tale was less about the terrible agony of the injury and more about the Western backdrop of her adventures growing up on a farm with several brothers and a sister. When I needed Mrs. Parker to be thrown by a horse and break her arm, Aunt Helen sprang immediately to mind.
But Aunt Helen’s spirit is infused into Mrs. Parker’s character too — kind but willful, nervous but adventuresome, hopeful but resigned. All of these traits were revealed in the best story I ever heard Aunt Helen tell during what turned out to be our last visit.
I had been living in Medford, Massachusetts, about 45 minutes away from Aunt Helen who lived on a tidy lane in Westborough. Like me Aunt Helen was a California girl transplanted to the Bay State by her husband. In my case it was temporary – my spouse was in graduate school. But for Aunt Helen, it had been a permanent move from which she never recovered.
We caught up in her kitchen. There I recognized, from my trip eight years prior, the sturdy faux marble-top picnic table that her husband Louis had built for their children to enjoy a comfortable, casual bowl of cereal every morning. It made a cozy place to sit and eat or talk over coffee.
Aunt Helen started our visit by stating how glad she was that dementia-ridden Louis was dead. Now she could do as she liked.
“Cooking three meals a day was so monotonous,” she said, dismissive of the kitchen where she had spent more time administering to him than she cared to acknowledge. He spent his days in his “cellar,” a place she was thankful for – it kept them apart. He kept busy down there, alone in front of his fireplace, reading his magazines and working with his tools. Since his death she had finally ventured below to see what he had been doing all those years.
Helen Nava was born in the mid-1920s, spending her youth in Twin Falls, Idaho and her elementary and high school years in southern California. She married a New Englander and moved thousands of miles from those she loved to raise a large family. She was a handsome woman whose red hair had always been silver in my lifetime. She was hardy and always on the go — I thought she was the most adventurous woman I had ever known. Aunt Helen described herself as nervous, which I interpreted as fidgety and full of energy.
Every summer after her children were grown Aunt Helen left Massachusetts to visit the place she felt most at home – Solana Beach north of San Diego. Some years she would come to the Owens Valley. My family usually saw her on those occasions, as she was close to her brother Frank, my grandfather, and by extension, to her nephew Phil and his wife Wanda, my mother and father. She always traveled alone. That meant my sister Carol and I could have her all to ourselves. We adored her.
“Want to see the cellar?” she asked. She said Uncle Louis had apparently been collecting some guns. I imagined perhaps ten or twenty guns total, hidden in a couple of heavy-duty storage cases or locked cabinets, away from prying eyes. But when Aunt Helen opened the deadbolt to Uncle Louis’ room, I saw what amounted to one man’s worship of the Winchester product line. Perched on collector’s hooks were over 200 rifles, revolvers, knives and even a few automatic rifles, as well as antique muskets from the Revolutionary War period. On the floor three miniature replica cannons crouched, their shot arranged in the four corners of the room.
“He built them for the Bicentennial,” Aunt Helen said. “There are three big ones in the barn, but I’ve never seen them,” she added. What else had she not seen, I wondered? She must have guessed at my question. She pointed to a round red cookie tin. In it my great uncle had squirreled away more than $20,000 in cash and coins; he never told my Aunt of his stash. I didn’t think it was all that much, but then I realized that in the early years of her marriage, right after World War II, even a few thousand dollars was significant.
“It makes me so mad; he was always crying poor mouth,” she said. She listed how difficult life was for her – years of just getting by, making meals stretch, sewing her children’s clothes, and begging Louis for money when the children needed new shoes. All the while Louis was buying guns and concealing cash, amassing enough weapons to start his own militia.
Uncle Louis created his own taxonomy of objects: rifles hung in order of year of production, size, color and bullet speed; padlocks hung on the back of the entrance door, old heavy brass models to modern Master Locks, keys attached for easy access; a cupboard brimmed full of ersatz Revolutionary War tools and memorabilia, including a stack of hatchets, a tri-cornered hat, and a pair of tall leather boots. He crammed the drawers full of Winchester pocket knives, hunting knives, boxes of bullets and unidentifiable paraphernalia to impress the most ardent reenactors of the Battle of Lexington.
I stood near Uncle Louis’s fading, frumpy recliner, noting a depression in the seat from where he sat day after day, year after year. A musk of charcoal, tobacco and aging upholstery kept him oddly present in the room and I couldn’t help thinking that Aunt Helen shut herself out of this as much as he kept her away. How could your husband amass hundreds of guns without you knowing it? Did she turn a blind eye? Then it dawned on me. What I had always admired as her brave spirit was partly a disguise for her fear. She had been nervous. About Louis. About the lack of intimacy. The secrets.
Aunt Helen gestured to his desk and nearby shelves where a framed painting of Charlton Heston and a photograph of President George W. Bush honored her husband’s heroes. Next to them, tucked in crevices, small photographs of his grandchildren and great grandchildren peeped out, some fading in color as those same children were now mostly grown.
After Louis’ death, Aunt Helen told her children to take whatever they liked and instructed them to sell the gun collection. She told me proudly that when her children found the money in the tin they gave it all to her. She used it to buy a new car.
“Here is where he probably ordered the guns,” she said, pointing to a wall-mounted rotary phone.
“Does it still work?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, the line is clear as a bell.” Side by side, my Aunt and I quietly contemplated the magnitude of the collection, how it would be appraised and sold and the bigger question – what being alone now meant for my Aunt. Just then the phone rang. We jumped, clutching our hearts for a moment before laughing.
“Louis calling us from the dead!” Aunt Helen said.
“Telling us to leave his cellar alone,” I joked. Aunt Helen answered the phone. Though it was not her dead husband, I did feel as though we were disturbing the careful order he had created for himself.
I backed out of Aunt Helen’s driveway that afternoon, sure that she must have regretted her marriage to Uncle Louis. I was saddened by the years of sacrifice she had borne isolated in Massachusetts, so far from her friends and family in California. Despite decades of living in Westborough, she never managed to make many friends.
Just then Aunt Helen raced out the door. I rolled the window down.
“Everything alright?” I asked.
“I forgot to show you!”
“Show me what?” I turned off my car and followed Aunt Helen to the garage. There it was – an Oldsmobile Alero painted an eye-catching red, capped by a rear spoiler. A sassy car, one with some flash and daring.
“Isn’t it neat?” She was grinning ear to ear, running her hands over the soft cherry colored velveteen seats. I didn’t think it was much in the way of compensation for the hard years of her marriage. But she didn’t seem to be thinking that at all. She beamed, her heart perhaps a touch lighter after confiding in me her husband’s secrets.
Looking back, I should have stayed longer, went for a spin in the Oldsmobile and made my Aunt Helen dinner. I would have liked to hear more of her stories. But the cool autumn night was coming on and I had my own husband to get back home to. Now, like many men and women of the World War II generation, she is gone. Hopefully Louis’s guns and her Oldsmobile will live on. They might make for a good story one day.