In Loving Memory: Helena Michaud, 1912-2012

Our Grandma, Great-Grandma, and dear Grandma-in-law/Friend

Above: Helena on Christmas Day 2012 at her home

Marcus and Samantha’s Great-Grandma Helena died between Christmas and New Year’s this year, on December 30th. We were with her on Christmas Day, and then she had a stroke the next day and passed away quietly at home just before the end of the year, with family around her. Her official obituary appeared in her local paper, The Lynn Item, but since links tend not to last forever I captured it and am including it at the bottom of this page. Helena was vibrant and outgoing, always seemed desperate for “girl talk,” as she herself called it, and I was happy to listen to her stories and occasionally prompt for more. Marcus will remember her, but Samantha likely won’t, so I wanted to write this page for them.

Helena was a strong, strong woman. Born on August 3, 1912, and raised in Salem, Massachusetts, she had a hard childhood in many ways—her father, an alcoholic, abandoned the family, and her mother worked long hours to support them. She spoke only French until she went to school at age seven, and the abrupt transition to English then was difficult. One story she told again and again involved a time when her mother came into a huge bunch of bananas, maybe even a branch of a tree, from the way she told the story, and kept it in the basement and the children would go down to bring up bananas daily for weeks and months. “After that,” she’d say with a laugh, “I never really liked bananas.”

Helena didn’t get along with her older sister Edna, and she’d tell stories of getting a doll that was supposed to be for the two of them, but which Edna wouldn’t share with her, or, since the family could only afford tuition for one, Edna going to beauty school on the condition she teach Helena everything she was learning, but then never holding up her end of the bargain. In contrast, Helena’s relationship with her older brother Felix was intense, supportive, and close—she felt that they were together against the world, and she never had a bad word to say about him. Her younger sister Grace was diagnosed with Saint Vitus’ Dance, and as children, in the summer Helena and Felix would have to bring Grace in a wagon to the beach to rub sand on her legs; in the winter they’d just bring the wagon and some buckets to the beach to fetch home salt water to heat up for a bath for Grace, since the salt water and sand were considered to be the best treatment for her condition. She also had an older brother Narcisse, known as Pete within the family.

Helena left school at age fourteen to work in a tannery, and she always blamed the constant noise of the factory for her lack of hearing in her old age. She worked non-stop from age fourteen until past many people’s definition of retirement: she worked in a GE plant during WWII and then in an upscale women’s clothing boutique. “I could tell a woman’s size by looking at her,” she liked to say, “and then I’d have to go in the back and bring out the clothes. And when a man came in alone, I knew if he was buying for his wife or his mistress. ‘Oh, she’s your size,’ he’d say, and I was a perfect size eight.” Later, she worked in a butcher, cutting meat and packaging it in the cold room, and she always had strong opinions on the ideal cuts of meat.

Helena said she fell in love with Omer Michaud the first time she saw him, playing tennis. Both were very athletic and competitive, and both also were frugal and teetotal. Omer’s affectionate nickname for her was “Blackie” because her hair was so dark. They married and for awhile she thought she couldn’t have a child, though they both desperately wanted one. She seems to have done some primitive fertility treatments at the time, with constant hormonal injections, and then eventually she was blessed with a son, Richard. Richard’s baptism day was the day of Pearl Harbor, and Omer, a police officer, was called away from the family party to go patrol, in preparation for additional attacks or invasions, and Helena didn’t see him again for six days as he worked around the clock.

Left: Helena and Omer on their wedding day; Right: Helena with her mother and with Richard as a baby.

Throughout their lives together, Helena and Omer were a team—together they bought a lot and had a house built on it to their specifications, together they saved their pennies to pay off the mortgage in just five years, and together they doted on their only child, always wanting him to have the best education possible. When Richard went to college, and then graduate school, it was the pinnacle of Helena’s existence.

Helena became a widow very young, as Omer died of a heart attack while Richard was in graduate school. For a whole year, she told me, she just kept going to work (at the butcher) and coming home, and she’d lock herself in the house, shutting the doors and windows and blinds up tight, and cry and cry. She was lonely, and she was scared. A very social person, though, she couldn’t keep up that kind of existence for long, and finally she decided she needed to get out of the house and live. In her widowhood she made friends galore and also attracted more than her share of admirers. She started going with a group of girlfriends to Wonderland Ballroom to go dancing, which her husband had never liked to do. With her female friends, she even went on cruises and vacations over the years, though sometimes her good looks attracted so many men that her friends were jealous, and Helena had to say she wouldn’t dance with a man unless he found a friend to dance with her friend. She received several marriage proposals after her husband’s death, and she came very close to marrying one man, Francis, but she decided that she wasn’t comfortable with his drinking.

Helena was feisty and stubborn. She freely admitted she wasn’t a baker—she cooked to put food on the table, but the modern habit of leisure cooking left her scratching her head, and while she baked a cake for a birthday when she had to, she never seemed to love it. Once, as an adult, Richard told Helena in passing that her cakes always tasted “like sawdust,” she said. Another story she loved to retell over and over, this one would end with her saying, “And you know what? That was the last cake I ever baked for him or anyone else.”

When I met Helena, in 1993 when I started dating Robert, she was eighty-one, well-dressed and perfectly groomed. She lived alone in the house she and her husband had built together, and she still drove every day. She had a ritual of meeting “the girls” at the local McDonald’s for breakfast and the senior citizen special coffee. A devout Catholic always, she regularly went to Mass, even though she didn’t always agree with the teachings of the church, especially on issues of women’s health, where she was far more feminist than one might expect. She was thrilled when Robert and I announced our engagement five years later, and was always sad that she was not able to be at our wedding.

Left: Helena with Robert on Revere Beach in 2001; Right: at Thanksgiving Dinner at our Worcester Square apartment in 2001.

In the time that I knew her, her health declined, but she remained strong and independent. She moved into a single-floor condo, selling her house, just before her 86th birthday, and though she missed her house, she kept her car and her independence. She had congestive heart failure, and she took medications regularly for that and for high blood pressure. In addition to her loss of hearing, her eyes were getting worse, though she was still an avid reader. I used to buy her large-print books—all the Tom Brokaw nostalgic books, and then autobiographies and biographies of presidents and other public figures, as well as a few collections of stories and essays on aging—and she kept up her subscription to Time Magazine right up until her death, though the glossy paper was harder and harder for her to read.

Left: With Robert and great-granddaughter Aurora at New Year's 2001/2002; with Robert at Thanksgiving in 2002.

She also read the subtitles on television, as it was virtually the only way she could watch TV or movies at all; closed captioning changed her life, and she loved her “Captron,” as she insisted on calling it. She followed politics, supporting Obama; sports, watching baseball and football and golf and tennis; and the economy, telling me just at Christmas how awful “that cliff stuff” was. She used a DVD player until two years before her death, and we got her a Netflix subscription and filled up her queue with grandma-friendly movies (no senseless violence, not too much bad language, no sex). She was partial to feel-good movies like "Dave" or "Air Force One," as well as movies with dogs or children in them, and also Bollywood musicals.

Above: August 3, 2002--her 90th birthday.

Helena gave up her car about five years before she died. She had arthritis, and she was often in pain, especially in her back, which she’d injured in a fall in the shower in 2005 when she fractured two vertebrae. She got Meals on Wheels and had “a girl” come in twice a week to help her with the cleaning, but she really did as much as she could (and more) by herself: she wiped down all the tile in the bathroom every time she showered, she did all her own laundry, and she usually remade her own bed as she never liked the way anyone else did it for her.

Left: at the Salem Willows, August 2003; at our new apartment for Thanksgiving 2003

She had an intensely sweet tooth, going through boxes of candy and chocolates and cookies in record time, and she also loved her coffee, especially Green Mountain French Roast from the Keurig machine she’d been using for the last five or six years. She liked all kinds of food, though her favorites were fried oysters, fried scallops (she once memorably said, emphatically and seriously, “Seafood that isn’t fried? There’s no such thing!” to Robert’s sister Christine), New England-style roast beef sandwiches, lamb, chop suey sandwiches from the Salem Willows, and baked stuffed lobsters. Though she loved going to “the pancake house,” we also took her to all sorts of restaurants over the years, from sushi to Chinese to Brazilian. After that last one, she said, very contently, “That was so different! I’m really glad we went. Never take me there again.”

Left: Christmas at her house, 2006; with Aurora, Judy, and Robert in 2007.

She lived to be 100 years and five months old, a full, rich existence. Marcus and Samantha were the lights of her final years. We saw her weekly, unless we were out of town or someone was sick, and she lived for their visits. She said that seeing Marcus’s picture every morning by her bed gave her a reason to get up each day, and her house was almost papered in pictures of the kids. She used an iPad for the last year and a half, a loan from Robert’s office, mainly as a seemingly infinite photo album of the little ones. Though she was unable to speak after her stroke, she was able to look at pictures of them on the iPad on the very last day of her life.

Left: holding Marcus for the first time, when he was five days old; Right: Christmas with great-granddaughter Yasmine and Marcus, 2008.

Above: at an all-you-can-eat Chinese/Japanese buffet for Richard's birthday in 2010

Left: Holding Samantha at a few months old; Center: at her 100th birthday in August 2012; Right: playing with Samantha at her first birthday in December 2012


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Created: 1/11/13. Last Modified: 1/11/13.