Kathleen Delaney, author of And Murder for Dessert and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. Her long time love of small towns sent her looking through the Carolina’s for a new place to settle, Gaffney. Limestone College, a delightful historic district, and great library immediately drew her in. She lives in a wonderful 100 year old house, with a wrap around front porch, where she and her dogs can wile away a summer afternoon, and a big office, lined with bookcases, where she can spend her days writing. And, as always, reading.
Today I’m going to tell you a story about a little boy who used his imagination to cope with what was for him a difficult situation. It’s a true story.
Imagination doesn’t desert us when we grow up. It just changes form. The person who invented the I Phone, for instance, had a great imagination. I never would that thought of that.
Fiction writers, of course, spend most of their lives living in an imaginary world, talking to imaginary people. If you see a writer sitting in her chair staring out the window, she’s not watching the neighbors, she’s wondering why that nice Miss Beaton did what she did last night, and how she’s going to get her out of this one. I wonder how many kids who spent most of their class time staring out the window, day dreaming, seeing a world the rest of the class didn’t know existed, ended up as fiction writers. Not all, of course, but I’ll bet lots of them did.
The boy in this story didn’t. His mother did.
The Year of Helen
by Kathleen Delaney
Helen arrived the day school started. Excitement made the air crackle in our kitchen that morning. Laura once more proudly showed her father her lunch bag, David set our teeth on edge making his new cords squeak and Kris, the oldest, gave long and detailed instructions to the other two. Their father, over the top of his newspaper, kept making pointed remarks about how much free time I was now going to have, as I frantically finished the last lunch, removed my pearl necklace from Laura’s neck, assured David eating oatmeal was manly and explained to Kris once more that girl scout uniforms were only worn on meeting day.
Only four year old Eric was quiet. I sighed as I watched him make milk canals in his oatmeal. He’d always had sisters, brother, neighbor children around. This year he would be alone all day. I’d arranged for pre-school two mornings a week, and as I watched his face get longer as the time for the bus came closer, I hoped it would be enough.
The walk to the bus stop was brief, everyone happily waved good-by, and Eric and I returned to the blessed quiet of our kitchen. I sat down with a much needed cup of coffee to find a dejected little body leaning against me.
“Don’t have nothin to do.” .
After absently correcting his grammar I suggested, coloring? his farm set? a book? something with his and David’s vast assortment of trucks?
No. None of those.
“What do you want to do? There must be something.”
“Cartoons?” He looked at me hopefully.
“No,” I told him, “and I don’t think you’re ready for Oprah. Why don’t you go play in the sand box?”
Sighing deeply, he slowly headed for the back door, misery evident in every step.
With a bigger sigh than Eric’s I refilled my coffee cup, opened the grocery ads and started my shopping list.
The morning passed quickly and when I next glanced at the clock it was 12:30 and Eric hadn’t been back in once! Alarmed, I raced for the yard to find him quietly pushing trucks through a sandy maze. Well, I thought as I leaned against the door jam, look who’s adjusting. Aloud I said, oh so casually, “want some lunch?”
He looked up, his Norman Rockwell grin in place. “Un huh. Can Helen stay?”
My mind went blank. Helen? I looked carefully around the yard but no child, dog, cat or turtle presented itself. “Helen?”
“Yeah,” came the casual answer. “Him n’ me have been playin all morning and he’s real hungry.”
He pushed the truck aside and was on his feet, heading for the door.
For once disregarding sentence structure, I scanned the yard again, saw nothing, and followed my son inside. He pulled out a chair, not his, then climbed onto his own.
OK, I thought, I’ll play. “Hands?” I said, as I opened the bread drawer.
“Oh yeah. Can we have peanut butter? Come on, she always makes us wash.”
He headed for the bathroom where I could hear a lot of splashing and giggling.
How do I handle this one, I wondered, then took the cowards way out. One sandwich, cut in half, one apple, cut in quarters, two small glasses of milk, and two cookies. I set the plates in front of each chair and fled upstairs to collect more laundry. By the time I returned both plates were empty, so were the glasses and Eric was back outside, this time on the swing set.
About 2:30 he was back in, peering at the kitchen clock. “When does the bus come? Isn’t it almost time ?”
“Almost. Let’s go meet Laura.” Then I ventured, “Is, ah, Helen coming?”
“Na,” I was told scornfully, “he went home.”
After everyone was in bed, I told their father about Helen. I thought he’d be amused. Instead, he was alarmed.
“Is that normal? Maybe you should call someone and ask.” .
“Like who? I’m sure it’s just a phase.” For once I wasn’t the one raising the alarm and it felt good.
“Isn’t there something in those books you’ve got?” he persisted.
“Let’s see how it goes.” I sounded a little smug even to me, but underneath, I wondered.
Helen arrived the next morning and all that week. He came right after the school bus pulled out and went home promptly at 2:30. Saturday came, but Helen didn’t.
“How come?” asked Laura.
“He’s busy,” was her reply.
“He’s not coming ’cause he’s not real,” said David, with great guffaws. “Eric’s seein stuff.”
“Am not.” Eric stomped his foot indignantly.
David was prepared to continue when Kris, with a toss of brown curls, intervened.
“You really shouldn’t lie, Eric. You know what we learned at Sunday School.” Then, with a preview of impending adolescence, “besides, it’s embarrassing. Who ever heard of a boy named Helen?”
That effectively stopped the discussion, at least over the weekend, but on Monday Helen was back.
Gradually we became used to Helen, so much that, as Halloween approached, I became a little nervous. My children expected great things in the costume department and I wasn’t sure what to suggest for someone I couldn’t see.
“Helen’s not goin,” Eric announced. “He doesn’t like candy. Besides, he’d be too scared.”
“Like you were last year?” their father asked, not too tactfully.
Thanksgiving passed, Helen declined to grace our table, and Christmas approached. Helen and Eric accompanied me on our shopping trips. Helen was full of ideas for gifts, and generously shared his ideas on Christmas decorating, ideas voiced through Eric. I caught myself wondering if I should hang an extra stocking.
On the first day of Christmas vacation Eric announced that Helen had gone to visit his Grandma. He evidently had to take a train, one that sounded a lot like the train in the book we had just finished, and he would get to see snow.
“Gee, Helen’s lucky,” said Laura thoughtfully, “I’d like to ride on a train.”
“Really, Laura,” started Kris, hands on hips, “you know perfectly well…”
“Don’t say “ain’t” I said absently, then continued, “and don’t tease your brother. Hurry and finish your breakfast. We’re to see Santa.”
Helen disappeared in the ensuing discussion of Santa and reindeer, the church nativity play, decorating the tree, presents, and relatives arriving. Eventually it was over, the New Year came and went, and school and Helen returned.
Winter moved Eric and Helen inside, but the confined space only gave wider wings to their adventures. Over lunch each day they explained them to me. Once they went to the mountains, painting them all purple. Another time they visited a swamp and wrestled an alligator. Somehow a magic carpet was commandeered and they rode wildly over the town rooftops. Ponies came and went, with an elephant thrown in for good measure. That these were somehow related to the books read to Eric at bedtime was, of course, coincidental.
Sometime after Easter they moved back outside, and it was then that I noticed Helen wasn’t coming around as much. Eric talked more about the children he met at pre-school, asking if he could have them over to play. He was invited to other houses and seemed eager to go.
In May he turned five and proudly learned to ride his new two wheeler. The training wheels would soon be in the garage, I thought, as I watched him practice.
June came and with it summer vacation. We were going to Yellowstone for two weeks and the planning took up a good deal of time. When we returned the rest of summer fled by under an avalanche of swimming lessons, trips to the beach, and finally shopping for school clothes.
Once more it was the first day of school. Kris looked solemn as she contemplated her responsibilities as a sixth grader. Laura was blase’ about this year’s lunch bag, although she was once more wearing my necklace. This year, two pairs of new cords squeaked under the breakfast table.
“Now that you’re going to have all that free time,” started their father from behind his newspaper, while I finished stuffing the last lunch box, retrieved my necklace, helped Kris finish her french braid, and removed the horned toad from David’s pocket.
I reached for Eric to comb his hair one more time only to have him squirm out from under me and follow his brother and sisters out the door.
I followed to the bus stop where I stood around useless, like all the other mothers waiting in the background for the bus to come. Eric stood next to me, not quite holding my hand. Finally, I couldn’t stand it.
“Is, uh, Helen starting school too?” .
He turned to look up at me, for a second eyes blank.
“Helen?” Slowly, thoughtfully he said, “oh no. Helen, you know, he’s just a little kid.”
Then, without a look back, he boarded the bus.