Helen Frey, my mother-in-law

by Frank Deis


Marrying into a family leaves one as partly an outsider, yet partly a family member. The old stereotype has men in constant conflict with mothers in law. But I loved Helen Frey and always felt comfortable around her. I know that in some ways, she was careful not to "show her hand" - and there must have been things that irritated her about me. The times she showed it were so few over the 34 years I knew her that I can hardly remember any at all. My own mother was deeply religious, and couldn't restrain herself from occasionally asking pointed questions about my views on the afterlife, or why I didn't go to church more often, or wouldn't I really like to become a minister. I know Helen's beliefs were just as deep and strong, but she never questioned my philosophy, and rarely said anything explicit about hers when she was with me.

I think that Helen learned to appreciate each person she knew for his own qualities. She encouraged the positives without harping on the negatives. I never touched the piano without her offering compliments about how good it sounded. She always remarked on it when I would read her copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, "I'm glad to see someone using that!" She was proud of her mother's verbal abilities, with crossword puzzles and Scrabble, and admired them in others as well. In fact I was very impressed with her vocabulary. She was describing someone to me once, and said "he was a pycnic type." I didn't know what she was talking about, thinking she meant he liked to eat sandwiches on a blanket outside or something like that. She spelled it and I looked it up it refers to the sort of squat, thick- necked "football lineman" body type, and it's a term which used to be found in psychiatry textbooks. When people talk about Helen, they tend not to mention how intelligent she was. I think that what you couldn't help noticing about her was her energy, her caring, and her selflessness. But driving all of that was a sharp and retentive mind. The fact that all four of her children graduated from good colleges shows that she passed on her love of learning to future generations.

Joan Smith, the minister at Christ Church Saxtons River, mentioned that Helen had a hearty laugh, and would throw her head back when she laughed. I really enjoyed her sense of humor, and even in the hospital she would often say funny things that would make us chuckle. One specific time, several years ago, she had said the first line of a poem. Perhaps it was a song lyric, I wish I could remember specifically. And Louise said the second line -- but from a different poem. It was the sort of thing that sounded almost right, but if you continued the second poem it became more and more ridiculous. It struck Helen as funny, and we all laughed until we were out of breath and our sides hurt. I think that both with Louise and Helen I have really enjoyed their sense of humor, and I think that's a big part of how people relate to each other, the ability to laugh together.

Helen's kindnesses toward me were endless. When she learned that I liked to sit in her favorite chair, a rocking recliner, she wouldn't sit there even if I made an effort to remember to sit elsewhere. I finally just gave up and used her chair whenever we were visiting. She was always so busy, she hardly sat down anyway. In fact in her last weeks she told Louise "maybe Frank would like to have my chair?" Whether we were visiting Vermont, or she was visiting us, she would make "peanut butter sandwiches" layers of dark chocolate surrounding a layer of peanut butter. These were just exquisite, and she knew well that they were something I really enjoyed. But of course she remembered the favorite foods of everyone in the family, and went to the effort to make them.

Some of the nicest memories I have of Helen were from our trip to England in 1997. We arranged the trip to include several things we knew Helen would want to do visit the "time capsule" village of Clovelly, and meet cousins in Callington, Cornwall where her maternal grandparents were born. At age 80 her heart was still good, although her legs were giving her some problems. We coped with everything, including driving on the left, and living in close quarters, and generally had a wonderful time. I was sad that when we made an effort to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, which involved a long walk, they had cancelled it due to the weather. Helen kept surprising me, especially when she hiked up a hillside on the Cornish Coast Path to see the gorse and heather and the wonderful views near Crackington Haven.

I will miss Helen Frey, both as a favorite relative, and as a good friend.