There is a small, half-moon scar on the underside of my chin. It came from my mistaken belief at nine years old that whatever object was hung on the handlebars of my bicycle would remain separate and apart from the spokes of the front wheel.
In this case, an umbrella became my disfigurer, confidently hooked as it was over the gleaming steel bar of my bike while I blithely cycled around the neighborhood after a light, summer rain.
With an oddly accute awareness I could feel the grainy contents of the asphalt road embedding in my chin as I landed face-first in the middle of the street and the weight of my beloved, red two-wheeler resting along my back after flipping us both "ass over teakettle," as our Scottish housekeeper used to say.
Our housekeeper's name was Helen O'Neill, and she was a stoic. A bespectacled, petite, grizzled and grayed woman in her early fifties, she came to live with us through an agency after my mother had applied for a "mother's helper/housekeeper" to assist her in running the house and managing her three young children while she was experiencing a very difficult pregnancy with her fourth.
Helen was a widow and former decades-long member of the Royal Air Force, with a thick brogue, a love of Robert Burns and a distracted grimace that perpetually hounded her face until all evidence of joy was stricken.
Even on the occasion when duty called her to proffer a more nurturing countenance toward my sister, brother and I, it was clearly a strain; as though by showing us any signs of affection at all, she was violating some generational, blood oath of emotional impenetrability and would be damned to course the foggy hollows and moors of her native land for a deathless eternity.
Clearly, I could not turn to her for comfort as I stood in stunned embarrassment next to my slightly- mangled metallic steed, cupping both hands under my lacerated chin in a futile attempt to curb the profuse bleeding.
She would have regarded my teary-eyed state with distain and remedied the situation with a perfunctory efficiency so dismissive it could border on abuse.
Our house at the time backed up upon the ninth tee of the Winged Foot Golf Club course; a club where my grandfather was a founding member and one my own father enjoyed in the summer months with dismaying regularity, if you were to ask my mother.
On that day I became aware that the universe shifts in funny ways. It lands you in a field of incongruent and surreal dynamics that would be likened to a miracle if the outcome were evident at the time; but in that landscape and at that moment, it just seems odd.
It was on that odd landscape as I gingerly groped my way around the back of our house, that I glanced in the direction of the golf course and saw my father. He was among a foursome of men, all obviously taking advantage of the break in the weather and just teeing off when I spotted him.
Although I knew that the likelihood of his welcoming the intrusion of his bleeding offspring while in the midst of his golf game was not high, the far more terrifying alternative of facing Helen compelled me to march toward the course.
While it is true that in this instance he would probably not qualify for Most Compassionate Father of the Year, he tended to me with a balanced concern, cleaning my wound with his golf rag after dousing it several times in the ball washer which was provided at every hole. After giving me a clean, white hankie from his pocket, he sent me home to apply Bactine and Bandaids on my own.
Evidently, stoicism is not confined to Scottsmen alone.
The following fall and winter were difficult in our house. My mother's pregnancy had grown more tentative and remanded her to bed rest for the duration. This, of course, left Helen as the active and sole matriarch of our slightly-derailed clan.
Her work ethic was peerless and in spite of my genuine fear of her, I watched with admiration as she not only maintained her daily workload of housework and laundry, but effortlessly added to it the duty of tending to my bedridden mother, cooking all meals and taking over the task of delivering the three of us in a timely fashion to the bus stop, supper table, bath or bed.
Homework hour was overseen with the unconstrained vigilance of General Patton, though usually accompanied by cookies and milk which she would brusquely deposit on the table then turn away in a manner so swift I often suspected she was hiding something.
I suspected it might have been a slight smile.
At the end of January we experienced a blizzard that was so fierce we were without power for several days. My father was away on business unable to get home, and as we kids moped about the house in frigid knots, draped in layers of knitted wools and thermal blends, Helen was outside in the blinding curtain of white winds shoveling the front walk. Coatless.
She knew the fragile state of my mother's health and that an emergency birth might be forthcoming and was blazing a generous trail from the house to the street just in case.
Because of the unrelenting nature of blizzard snows, the path needed constant re-shoveling. So, every two or three hours Helen would take off her apron, grab the snow shovel where she had it propped by the front door, and in nothing more than her snow boots and pink uniform, she would begin the clearing process all over again. This went on for days.
She kept all of us warm and fed us hot meals of Mince 'n Tat'ies by preparing them in the large, stone hearth in the room my mother quaintly called "the keeping room;" continually running fresh hot tea and homemade soup up the stairs to my concerned mother throughout the day and frequently plying her chilled, gestating body with warm blankets throughout the night.
In the deep middle of one of those nights after two or three days without power, I awoke to a blue cold that prompted me to go down to the kitchen where I hoped to find my winter coat.
Instead I found Helen, sitting in a chair at the kitchen table still in her uniform, her head bent low, resting on the tabletop and nestled in the makeshift pillow she'd made with her apron. She was snoring soundly.
Next to her on the table was a miniature book bound in a plaid, cloth cover embossed in gold with the words: Poems of Robert Burns. I recognized its shape being that of the small bulge I would often noticed protruding from her apron pocket.
Terrified but too intrigued to walk away, I picked up the book and my flashlight and was quickly mesmerized; and sitting there next to the slumbering body of Helen, absorbing not only the heat from her skin but the mysterious words from her little book, I was swaddled in a blanket of enchantment.
Oh, my Luve's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O, my Luve's like a melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
Sleep was no longer an option. My mind was too full of this lyrical mystery turn away now.
The following day my mother was rushed to the hospital to deliver my brother, three months prematurely. My father, who was finally able to make his way to my mother's side, later told us that our brother was so small his whole body fit neatly in the palm of my Dad's hand with room to spare.
No one was certain whether he would survive.
No one except Helen. She was not only convinced that he would live, but also that she would be his nurse. Suddenly, this woman without a smile found a lightness in her soul and it was wound around the idea of daily coddling this small baby boy.
But I had an obsession lighting my own soul. For days I pestered her for the meaning of those alien words in her little book. Who was this man? What was this language? Why did I want to understand them so desperately? But even as she shooed me away in her blustering haste to prepare the house for my brother's homecoming, there was a palpable ribbon of sweetness behind her gruff tone; and I knew that in spite of her harsh demeanor, calcified by years of forced tenacity, she liked me.
"Go'n me wee Hen! Y'r a buther ta me new! I canna tale ya of da theens ya do'in have tha age ta knew! Be off we ya, Lass!"
My brother did live. Only when he was brought home to us, it was necessary that a full-time nurse come live with us, too. He was so very small and susceptible and my mother was still quite weak. They both required specialized care.
Although she never said a word, Helen was devastated, and as the days passed into weeks, I watched her fold back into that familiar mold of granite resolve until the very act of making eye contact was too painful for her to manage.
One day she came to my mother and announced that she would be leaving the following morning. She'd taken another job and felt it prudent to start immediately. My mother was startled but had no wish to retain someone who was that unhappy; and although she was quite naturally sad to see her leave, she wished her the best and said goodbye.
Within a few days I found that I missed her profoundly and so I took myself up to the room that had been hers off the kitchen for consolation; hoping, perhaps, to pick up some faint remnant of her pressed into the walls and bed linens.
There, I found on her nightstand that familiar small, plaid book of poetry. She'd heard me after all. Opening it, I saw that she had circled a verse:
"Then catch the moments as they fly
And use them as ye ought, man;
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man."
Helen was a stoic. And I am proud to say, "So am I."
And whenever I feel the underside of grief or turmoil threaten to bring me to my knees, I have only to trace that scar on the underside of my chin to know:
"T'will be a better day a'morrow. Aye."
Tapadh Leat, Helen.