Her doctor’s advice, “eat anything you want, Helen, just don’t swallow it,” characterizes the majority of her life. Monstrous qualifications accompanied her every possibility of pleasure, so she undertook thievery to cope. If her desired life proved elusive, she intended to steal others’. It started with library books shortly after my grandfather returned from WW II. Instead of gifts, he returned with Brownie snapshots of unrecognizably human carcasses piled roof-high in box cars; a brightly colored enameled swastika badge; and a dagger lifted from a German corpse. These souvenirs hardly whispered sweet nothings of love and longing, though they symbolically announced that her husband was no longer the fawning lover who had departed for Europe just as she braced to exit her second decade and enter motherhood. Not long thereafter she lifted Helen’s Victory from the Warren Co. Public Library.
By the time my mother and I returned that volume to the library’s dropbox in 1986 – under cover of darkness for fear of the consequences – gram had boosted several hundred novels chronicling successful love matches with husbands who were not permanently disfigured by anger and trauma despite convincingly impersonating a matinee idol. In those stories, when the heroine took possession of a remote electricity- and plumbing-free farmhouse with gravestones for a sidewalk, no one ever mentioned the daily drudge of slopping shit to the outhouse or bathing in the kitchen sink. No, those women succeeded thanks to unnamed servants who ensured that the lady of the house/manor/castle could focus her energies solely upon freeing earthbound spirits and regaining the perfect love, momentarily derailed by gothic horror, of their husbands. For Helen, though, gothic horror was just another property feature and despite traversing those gravestones each time nature called, her exhaustion quashed any investigative impulse or moralistic outrage at that particular injustice.
The dead, after all, were familiar company to her; they had filched her husband, leaving a handsome husk who insisted she cook, clean, and care for the living singlehandedly. He was not the first to make such demands; she had played that role since childhood. Ensconced in a fallen gentry family whose failed fortunes necessitated her baptism transpire in a black taffeta gown cut down from Victorian weeds – a relic of more prosperous times – and monogrammed with orange floss, she’d always been their “fixer.” In those years of endless sassafras tea and stale bread, they weaned her on tales of unimaginable finery and wealth. From day one she began acquiring the language of lost objects that became her ontology and conjugating the cases of Victorian walnut dressers, sterling flatware, and cut glass stemware forfeited by feckless businessmen and overpowering hubris. Those objects became her totems and she determined to reclaim them – or their approximation – to avenge all she lost out on.
And so she stole – with great abandon. Life seemed to her an endless exercise in possibility remembered, a nostalgia for what never was. She endured: as her parents succumbed to cancer after caring for them endlessly; as she navigated her nephew’s murder and the ensuing scandal exacerbated by his mother’s suicide attempts; as she nursed herself back to health – no money for a doctor – after surviving a pressure-cooker explosion that left her severely burned with skin hanging in ribbons, and more. To compensate, she lifted silver-plated fish forks; a Sleepy Eye stoneware pitcher; a French centerpiece bowl; dozens of fine rings and earrings; sentimental Victorian lithographs; Edwardian photographs; and personal holiday cards, amongst other frippery. One Christmas she even absconded with the gifts she had just given a nine-year-old me. A fiendish bricoleur, she obsessed over possessing the life those objects evoked. After my grandfather’s death, her favorite score became drugs. Working as a third-shift nurses’ aid in a small nursing home, she purloined pills with the same abandon that she swallowed them. Of all her heists, prescriptions satisfied best because of their knack for manifesting the life imagined. In the end, though, they stole her health, leaving her a paralyzed nursing home inmate fearful of robbery. This new, terrible reality overpowered her as she realized that she would never regain any part of the collection she had surreptitiously assembled and meticulously curated. Seven years into that Spartan hospital bed incarceration – one hot July Friday night – cordoned off from that which constituted her, she defiantly proclaimed her life’s substance to all within earshot – “Don’t let them take my things!” – and transcended to the realm of objects, finally nabbing the impossible synthesis she’d always sought.