By Chelle Delaney: Quay County Sun
My Aunt Helen died last week.
She was 84 and the last of my mother’s bridge group.
Her death is a marker of memories and a reminder that those of my generation are becoming the family sentinels.
She and my Uncle Jack raised five children.
And I can’t help but think of the weekly gatherings of women for bridge, at her house or my mom’s, or the family tradition of gathering each Christmas eve at their house to welcome Santa Claus.
By the time all of us kids were all in our teens, we knew how to play bridge. I guess we all could have been called “fourth” this and “fourth” that because invariably, one of the women couldn’t make it, and one of us were always being called on to be “the fourth.”
We did this reluctantly at first. But after we got the hang of it, I think each of us knew we were participating in much more than a bridge game.
All of us kids learned from these women, who were patient and playful, as they taught us about bridge and the art of counting points to bid and playing out a hand. They also taught us how not to be too gleeful when we won and how not to pout when we were flat out trounced by an opponent.
My mom always thought she should write a book about these women, called “Eight for Bridge,” because in between the dealing of cards most of the intimate details of their life had become revealed.
Like the last card thrown from the deck, each of these women, over the years of the weekly gatherings, had shared their sweetest victories, and their most devastating losses. They ranged from the mother’s pride for a child who had done well to a woman who had loved, married and become widowed all in a year’s time.
There was also Nellie, a 78-year-old widow. One year she ran off with a childhood school chum, her new love, to New Orleans and got married.
All of us in the younger generation were flabbergasted that someone so old could do such a thing. We were even more surprised when she came back a year later.
With much humor and with no regrets or embarrassment, she said, “All he wanted was someone to keep house and cook. I was worn out.”
I once interviewed a family counselor, who in the course of the conversation, said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re 17 or 73, when the thunderbolt of love strikes, everyone goes a little goofy.”
Their big Christmas event was frozen daiquiris. You just can’t help but laugh, and raise your eyebrows at the same time, when you begin to hear octogenarians swap blue jokes.
Us kids were aghast, yet, relishing every punch line.
The women were all close, but when the chips were down, and there wasn’t enough time to get the right dessert, the proper tablecloths etc., it was my mom and Aunt Helen who helped each other make a complete set, or to make what seemed to them the unacceptable, appropriate.
When it came to family matters, we always joined Uncle Jack and Aunt Helen for Christmas eve. But there were several necessary weeks of preparation.
For example, by early December our house was often chock full of Tonka trucks, basketballs, soccer balls and other gifts that could not be hidden in a house of five kids.
There was also the year that we waded around five boxes of bicycles at our house. My mom stubbed her toe, and my father discombobulated a couple cups of coffee. It was a pleasant grumbling on their part and, since I was oldest of the cousins, I was curious. I didn’t want them to end up with a bike that was better than the one I had gotten several years earlier.
That aside, when Dec. 24 arrived, the boxes were hauled into the car about 11 p.m. and driven over to Uncle Jack’s and Aunt Helen’s.
There was the obligatory round of fruit cake, coffee and family chatter. Often, one of the five would arise, and they were assured that Santa was on his way.
And then after the bedrooms had become quiet, my dad and uncle started unloading the boxes. Then there was the tool chest. Then there was the “do you think this should go there?” And then, about 3 a.m., there were two Irishmen.
I’m sure each of you has your own story, reason and understandings.
But, for me, this occasion was when I got the first inkling of why, at many family gatherings, the women stay in the kitchen and the men stay in the living room.
Naturally, all turned out well. And for many Christmas eves after, my dad would start laughing and say, “Jack, remember when we had all those bicycles.”
And about that time, my mom and Aunt Helen would head for the kitchen.
Chelle Delaney is associate publisher for the Quay County Sun. Contact her at 461-1952 or by e-mail: