Helen and Her Legacy of Letters


In 1923, Helen—after Dorothy—was the second most popular name given to infant girls. But the Helen I knew, born that year on July 26 in High Point, North Carolina, was second to none. Helen Matilda Ferrell was my resilient mother. This would have been her ninety-fifth birthday.

After a Depression-era childhood filled with hardship and family responsibilities, Helen left the Tar Heel State at twenty-two. In 1945, she landed a government job in post-WWII St. Louis, where she lived most of the next six decades. In 1948, she met my father, Walter Johnson, at Westminster Ballroom. They married later that year after a brief courtship.

The ensuing decade was a relatively quiet time. By 1957, Helen and Walter were proud parents of two healthy children—my sister and me. But the 1960s, like the social upheaval in our country, were turbulent years for our family. Walter suffered a heart attack in 1962 that left him alive but reeling and unable to work consistently. Helen found a full-time job to sustain us.

I know my mother felt alone under the weight of the grind for the next twenty-five years. I watched her muster the strength to raise two children, mark time in a disintegrating marriage, and teeter above it all with no safety net. Finally, Helen took a deep breath in 1987. She retired to a more peaceful, contented life at sixty-three.

Over the next twenty-five years, Helen penned and mailed a thousand or more cards and letters to me. Kind but forceful, I almost had to hold them at arm’s length to keep the contents from smothering me like the kudzu vines that constrained the trees and plant life in rural North Carolina. But time gives us greater appreciation and perspective. I now understand my mother’s letters were her narrative, her legacy of wisdom. I’ve kept them close at hand, stored in a box near my desk.

When Helen died of congestive heart failure on January 26, 2013 in Wheaton, Illinois, I didn’t know the full moon beaming on the horizon would be the last light I would see before two foggy-headed years swallowed me whole. I often felt alone in the darkness, though my husband and a circle of close friends stood with me. I forged along in the vacuum of Helen’s existence.

I hoped Helen’s letters would provide clues for me to move ahead without her physical presence. So in 2014, after retiring from my own demanding career in the communication business, I began to sift through her scribblings—strewn across my living room floor—like a desperate miner panning for gold nuggets.

Slowly, a few answers emerged. Remnants of Helen, the ultimate survivor, permeated the pages she authored at the desk of her St. Louis retirement. Her life lessons—and a mountain of diary entries her father left behind from his Spartan mid-twentieth-century life in rural North Carolina—prompted me to retrace my southern roots in 2015. A year later, with glimmers of Helen guiding me, I completed and published my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation memoir about all three of our lives.

Two more years have passed. Though the loss of my mother persists, it has subsided with the rise and fall of each passing full moon. Helen didn’t witness the life I’ve unearthed as a late-blooming author, my precarious existence following a heart attack a year ago, or the personalized definition of retirement my husband and I are shaping near the sands of the Sonoran Desert. But perhaps none of these eventualities would have surprised her.

Certainly, my mother’s voice and encouragement endure with each passing day. Late in her life, as her maladies mounted, she kept her even keel and a dish of her favorite candies, Werther’s original caramels, nearby to relieve her dry mouth. With a sly smile, she reminded me that “the best way to stay healthy is to get a chronic disease and then take care of it.”

It’s comforting knowing that whenever I need to access a page of my mother’s philosophy to get through a difficult moment, I have a path to follow, which—over time—I’ve integrated into my life along with a ready supply of Werther’s hard candies.

The splice of Helen’s handwriting you see here, taken from a 2008 thank-you note to me right after her eighty-fifth birthday celebration, is physical proof of the remarkable woman I knew. In Helen’s words, some things, like a fulfilling retirement, are “worth waiting for.”

And some people are most definitely worth remembering too.

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