If I had called Auntie Helen earlier in the day, she would likely have wondered why I was calling so early? And what would I have said? I had thought maybe I’d tell her I was playing hooky from school – but that would have elicited more questions. Auntie Helen may have been 92 or 93 (no one really knew for sure) but she was still as sharp as a tack. Auntie Helen’s children and I decided that there was really no point to telling her that I had cancer – why worry her? She was like my own mother in that she would fret. And they would always fret about their “girls” – my cousin Cathy and myself. The two sisters, Helen and Paula, would fret to each other that their daughters worked too much, were under too much stress, and were never appreciated enough for their efforts. I decided I would call Auntie Helen later that evening – that way it would avoid suspicion for sure. I decided I would poster her phone number on my fridge in a prominent spot where I could see it – and then call her daily at a regular time. She loved to chat on the phone. Of late, she would joke that she randomly called a number programmed into her phone and see who she could get to talk to. It was always fun, she explained, to see who picked up at the other end. This was so typical of Auntie Helen. She was never, never, never afraid of a new adventure. So, when she reached me, she was surprised that I answered the phone. The random phone calls became like playing a modified game of “telephone roulette” and she rather enjoyed the mystery and intrigue.
Instead of calling Edmonton to talk to my Aunt, however, Edmonton called me. It was with a very heavy heart that my brother, Jamie, informed me that Auntie Helen’s daughter had just called him to let him know her Mom had “just” passed away. The Matriarch of the Malloff clan was gone. That phone call would now never be made.
The damn phone book sits beside me and offers me no comfort. “Why did you not call earlier, Stacey?” it taunts me.
There is just so much to process right now. I am just so grateful that the Malloff clan was able to get together this summer in Edmonton to see Auntie Helen. Her health had been tenuous a few months earlier. In fact, her emergency trip to the hospital had signed the need to move her from her own little apartment that she had loved so much and into a nursing home. Yet – she was so determined to be with her family – all of us – that I’m confident that she willed herself to recover.
My cousin Pam and I were the first to arrive and hence drove our rented vehicle to pick Auntie Helen up for lunch from her nursing home. No one really knew what to expect but we were all willing to do “whatever it was she wanted to do.” We were all there for her. And she knew that. She was thrilled. The doors at the nursing home opened, and “voila”. There she was! The Queen Bee. Our Matriarch. And she looked just like my Mom!
Auntie Helen’s smile told us that everything was going to be okay. I got out of the car and raced to greet her – She – whose smile lit up every corner of her mouth. We all wept for joy together. Our breath could hardly keep pace with our hearts which burst from our chests. Pam, Auntie Helen, and I shared such an intimate moment that breathed relief into our hearts at the same time it breathed sheer joy. We were absolutely joyous to be together. Who would have thought that Auntie Helen could pull through her perilous health demonstrated only months prior to this reunion?
She looked She had aged, but she was still the beautiful Auntie Helen – the Matriarch. Wow! We just couldn’t believe we were together!
“Where do you want to go to lunch, Auntie Helen?” I asked.
“Anywhere you want. And it’s my treat. I have $2.00 so choose wisely!” she teased.
“What about Pearl River, Auntie Helen? Is it around here and can you help us get there?” I asked.
“Really?” she almost giggled. “Do you really want to go there? That’s my favorite restaurant you know!”
“I know. That’s why Pam and I thought you may want to go there. But do you know the way?”
“Of course I do. You drive, I’ll navigate.”
Off we went. “Hospedi bla-ha-sla-via!” blessed Auntie Helen. This was a Russian expression that graced the speaker with good luck during travels. Auntie Helen said this every time she ventured anywhere. It became a trade-mark expression. She was certain that once these words were said, the travel would be safe and sound. Sure enough, Auntie Helen knew exactly where she was going. This was quite typical of Auntie Helen. She was always determined, directed, and driven. No way would anyone deter her from what she intended to do – ever. I always admired this quality in her. She was a fighter. She was a warrior. And never, ever, ever cross her family! “Turn here, Stacey. Oh – look there is where I used to get my Hoover fixed. And there is my car repair place. O, how I miss my car. I loved my car you know. I can’t believe I’m really here. I can’t believe I’m really going to lunch with you. I am so thrilled to see you! You have all made the effort to see little ‘ol moi!” She gushed and she navigated us through her old neighbourhood. With nay one wrong turn, we arrived at our destination. Pam and I were confident in her hands – Auntie Helen was very convincing that way.
We arrived at our destination – Auntie Helen had broken down the route and timed it almost perfectly. She was so happy to be there – it was the very simple things that she appreciated. “A table for three, please.” Pam inquired of the host – who gushed over Auntie Helen, recognizing her as one of their most valued customers from the past.
We settled in. We breathed. We ordered a glass of wine – Auntie Helen was throwing all caution to the wind as she had had no wine for such a long time. This occasion, however, was special. It was a family gathering we were never sure would happen. “Nesdrovia!” cheered Auntie Helen. “To good health!”
And then, the phone rang. It was the Malloff crew from Ottawa. “We are coming to join you.” said Uncle Ron, the comedian in the family.
“We are about to get more company.” I announced to Auntie Helen. Tears of joy came to her eyes. It had begun – the family was re-uniting.
“This is really happening, isn’t it?” said Auntie Helen. “I am so very lucky. How come I am so lucky to have such a wonderful family who have all made such an effort to come to see me?”
Cousin, by cousin, by cousin we all arrived and each of us were greeted and made to be felt so special by Auntie Helen. She had a way of doing that. Auntie Helen, over the years, had forged strong relationships with each of the cousins. Even Ben was invited to come to Edmonton when he turned 21, when she would buy him his very own martini. After much food, wine, and song, it was time to hit the road.
“Do you want to go back to your house for a rest, Auntie Helen?”
“No on your life! I am not going to be left behind. I’m doing whatever you are doing! Just take me with you – I’ll be fine.”
And sure enough, we had Auntie Helen locked and loaded and ready for a second round of laughter at the hotel. “Hospedi-bla-ha-sla-via” offered Auntie Helen to bless the trip.
Today, it is my turn to offer the blessing as Auntie Helen has made her final journey. She slipped away from us a couple of days ago, peacefully, and happily with her family by her side. The torch has been passed to Betsi, who is now the Matriarch of the family. It is time for Auntie Helen to rest. Her presence will never, ever be forgotten. She was the last of her generation and has joined Mom, Uncle Bill, and Auntie Anne who, I am confident, have been eagerly awaiting her on the other side of the Pearly Gates.
It seems fitting, then, on her last journey to offer Auntie Helen a safe trip. Auntie Helen, I love you. I will miss you. To you I say, “hospedi-bla-ha-sla-via!”