Today would have been my maternal grandmother’s 97th birthday.
Helen Wanda Wagner was born on May 12, 1917, to Franciszek and Mary (Suska) Wagner. She was the second child of the couple. Helen was born in Freeport, Stevenson, Illinois. She spent her early years in the town before the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, some time between 1920 and 1930.
Helen made her 1st Solemn Communion at St. Joseph’s Church in Freeport, Illinois.
She went to Alfred D. Kohn Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois.
In early 1936, my grandmother attended a cousin’s wedding. It was at that time, Frank Galkowski, also attending the wedding, made the announcement that he was going to marry her. They had never met before and he was tending bar for his friend, the groom.
Well, my grandfather was correct – they were married on June 13, 1936, at St. Salomea’s Church in Chicago.
Helen and Frank went on to have 3 children and lived in Chicago until 1973. In 1973, they moved in with her oldest daughter’s family (my mother).
Helen was an avid reader and crocheter. She taught me how to crochet when I was 5 years old. She also knew how to sew – I didn’t really take to that as much as I did the crocheting. I also remember sitting in her bedroom, pretending to read her Harlequin Romances (I was too young to really read them) while she crocheted an afghan or whatever it was that she was making. Looking back, that must have been entertainment for her, too, because I “read” out loud and came up with all kinds of story lines!
She had horrible arthritis and lupus. She took prednisone as treatment. It caused osteoporosis and affected her liver. It was a trade-off – reduce the amount of pain and probably shorten her life or deal with the pain. She decided the pain was too much.
After years of prednisone (and losing her husband 11 months earlier) Helen’s body started shutting down. This is when I truly discovered mind over matter. We visited her in the hospital. She kept rallying off and on for a couple of days. My mother went into her room: “Mom, today is June 1st. Is there anything that I need to pay? Mom, it’s June 1st. June FIRST.” I thought it was the strangest conversation that I had ever witnessed. Not “Mom, fight like hell” or “Be strong”. “Today is June 1st”.
Within a few hours, she was moved into intensive care and we were paying our respects. We were saying good-bye. I will never forget it. I spent time off and on the pay phone (yes, a pay phone) with a college friend. I wasn’t ready for this. I was sad. I fought with her as a teenager – she drove me crazy – not now. I was a bit older and wiser. I went into her room in ICU and held her hand. It was really warm. Her eyes were closed and I could see she was trying to relax. I leaned over to her and whispered in her ear – “Don’t be afraid. I love you”. She nodded her head in recognition and I left the room.
Helen Wanda Galkowski died June 1, 1987, at the age of 70.
The story doesn’t end here. The mind over matter thing – I later asked my mother – “What was the big deal about it being June 1st?” Without missing a beat, my mother replied, “If it was May 31st, I would have had to mail her social security check back. Now that it’s June 1st, I get to keep it.” What? What a bizarre answer. The more I thought about it and the preceding couple of days, it started to seem less and less bizarre.
Hmmm. That will be one of those things I hope to be able to ask her myself one day.
Happy Birthday, Grandma.