When I was a girl in Catholic school, I spent many a recess standing on the busy corner of Bemidji Avenue and St. Philips church, leaning out into traffic, pumping my fist so the truckers who barreled by would honk their horns. I was not alone in this endeavor; a bunch of us always gathered there, whether it was ten below or fifty degrees. What a thrill to hear those horns blasting as the trucks whooshed by, just feet away, the driver smiling down on us and waving cheerfully.
Once in awhile, we would see two old ladies walking down Bemidji Avenue on the other side, mostly in overcoats and winter hats, huddled together as they walked in the cold. I noticed them especially because the house where I went for Girl Scouts was also over there, just across the street.
I learned the name of one of those ladies ten years later when I was dating a local man named Cornelius. Corney was twenty years older than I was, established in his career, and a Renaissance guy. I had just learned about the Renaissance the year before at Bemidji State University. Corney told me that the lady’s name was Helen Gill, and the other lady was her sister. Helen was a big patron of the arts in Bemidji, and Corney knew her because he tried out for a lot of plays.
Fast-forward to today, 23 years later in Phoenix, Arizona. I’m checking out my hometown newspaper, The Bemidji Pioneer. I want to read about the poetry slam that Cornelius hosted in this bar I used to work at. As I click around to get the article, I see a headline that makes my heart do a sad flip-flop: “Helen Gill remembered”. Oh no! Helen Gill died. She was nearly 100 years old.
I read through the article and come across the sentence, “Everyone knew Helen.” Even I knew Helen, and this is my Helen Gill story:
One summer day, when Corney and I were dating, I walked into his house to see a single rose in a vase sitting on his kitchen table. There was a card standing next to it, which was blank inside except for “I love who you are!” written in a woman’s handwriting. I had not given Cornelius the rose or the card. We’d been having a little trouble at the time. I turned to him and asked, “Who gave you the rose?”
He was preparing chicken wings for the grill because we were hosting something for his theater friends that night. “Helen Gill,” he said.
“Helen Gill gave you a rose? Helen Gill loves who you are?” Fear crept into my heart. We might have been having trouble, but I didn’t want to break up.
“You know how she is,” he said, and as he pranced by me with a platter of wings held high in the air, he mumbled something like “it was a sweet gesture from an old woman.” Then he twirled out of the house onto the patio towards the grill.
“Yeah,” I said. I felt a pang in my chest, but I was also angry in the way of a stubborn child not wanting to share. I knew for a fact that it wasn’t Helen Gill, and I knew exactly who it was, too. It was a woman he had known for a really long time, since before I was born. She was older and pretty and smart, and she was married.
A few days later, Corney and I attended a picnic for the same group of theater people that had come to his house a few nights before. I expected it to be a sit-down thing under a tent in somebody’s back yard, but it turned out to be more like a kegger, and everybody was standing around or sitting on the grass, cups of beer in hand. I was sitting on a grassy knoll with an actor from Minneapolis who Cornelius thought I was having an affair with, which I was not, and as we sat there drinking beer, I watched the crowd. What an interesting group, people I knew from having lived in Bemidji so long: one of my former college English teachers; the guy who played guitar in the bar I worked at; my old Girl Scout leader, divorced now.
Oh, and Helen Gill.
There she was, an old lady with fluffy white hair and bright lipstick, coming out of the house onto the patio area. She sat down at a picnic table.
Was I glad to see her.
I stayed with my actor friend for a few more minutes, enjoying the fact that soon I would be walking down the hill to fill up our cups from the keg that Helen was sitting next to. I had every reason to go down to the patio since the keg was right there, and it would be rude to not say hello to Helen. After all, she had given Cornelius such a lovely card. I wanted to thank her for that.
I walked down the hill in my bare feet. I didn’t walk fast and I didn’t walk slow, but I knew that Cornelius was watching me the whole time. I had caught his eye when I stood up—he was way across the yard, talking to some people—and I remember him clear as a bell, standing with a cup of beer in his hand, dressed in khaki pants and a short-sleeved, sea-green, button-up shirt.
My heart raced as I approached Helen, who I had never actually spoken to. She was a big name. Despite my sneaky mission, I still wanted to make a good impression.
I put the cups I was carrying down on the table and made direct eye contact with Helen. We both smiled as I sat down across from her and introduced myself. I was just getting to the rose part when who should appear by my side but Cornelius, huffing and puffing and blurting out “Well-hello-there” to no one in particular before dragging me away.
“She didn’t give me the rose,” he said when we stopped, so direct that it took me by surprise. We usually communicated by bad behavior and innuendo.
“Who did?” I asked. I knew he could break my heart.
He looked me in the eye for a few seconds, then stepped closer and leaned his head towards mine, a rare display of affection. “That was nothing and I love you very much,” he murmured, in the low voice he used when he was almost scolding me, but acknowledging that I had valid concerns. We didn’t come to this point in our relationship very often, when I knew he loved me, and it was okay for me to love him.
Twenty-three years later, I am reading Helen Gill’s obituary. I wish I’d had the opportunity to tell her this story, and to apologize for using her to find out if Cornelius loved me or not. “Sorry, Helen,” I say, touching her bright and beautiful face on my computer screen.
I was the girl across the street from you on Bemidji Avenue.