My stepmother Helen Thaler was 94 when she died in her Leisure World home, either Wednesday night, Aug. 28, or Thursday morning, Aug. 29, 2013. We met when I was 17. I’m 52 now.
A retired kindergarten teacher, she could be a wee bit of a tyrant. Sometimes in the heat of a discussion about something important to her, she would wag her finger in your face and yell at you—even if you and she were already in agreement.
She made my father’s last years happy. For that alone I would have done nearly anything reasonable for her.
She could be unrelenting. Convinced my doctor had recommended an unhealthy diet—”Doctors don’t know everything, so doctors don’t know anything!”—she nagged at me daily for 10 months to abandon the diet prescribed to me. When I became nauseous each time I ate, I capitulated.
She thought lying was stupid, a childish game the childish male gender played. Yet I heard her lie once. A mentally ill family member was obsessed with me to the point where she would get upset if I didn’t answer her call on the first ring. Around the time of the first US-Iraq war, I decided to take a break from the crazy calls and have dinner with my stepmother. Her phone rang. My relative had conned my father’s church secretary into giving up my stepmother’s unlisted phone number.
Helen said: “Charles isn’t here, Mary!” Then she hung up, returned to the table and told me who had called. I don’t think Helen wasted a heartbeat of guilt over the lie she’d told.
She seemed convinced that it was a mortal sin to say no to a salesperson, charity or beggar. If she didn’t have money with her, she insisted I give money to beggars. My father was never able to convince her she was doing more harm than good.
She hated war. She served in the US Army during World War II. When financial issues came up later in her life, someone pointed out she was entitled to benefits. She refused to apply on the grounds that money belonged to people who needed it.
Once, we were in her car in a parking lot at a swap meet when we saw a man take a baseball bat out of his car. He and another man were apparently having an argument. Helen insisted we get out of the car. As I looked for an escape route in the event the man with the bat went after us, Helen glowered at him as if the force of a petite, hunch-backed old woman’s contempt was bound to overwhelm him. Maybe it did. The man didn’t acknowledge our presence, but he must have been aware of the witnesses around him. The silence became oppressive–and he finally got in his car and left.
When I was 38, I was diagnosed with cancer. She yelled at my radiation oncologist: “It’s poison! It’s poison!” It took me three days to talk the doctor into resuming treatment. I stopped speaking to her for one day. She eventually called, crying and apologizing. I don’t think she was remorseful—I think she honestly believed she did the right thing and honestly believed I did not have cancer. To be fair, three of her friends were also diagnosed the same month I was.
She loved cats and insisted they were “Fur Persons,” a term borrowed from a French novel. She loved to read—Agatha Christie and similar writers were her favorites. Me, I’m more a Dashiell Hammett sort of guy.
She was bed ridden the last couple of years of her life. She wanted to die at home. She did. She was just beginning to show hints of dementia. She checked out with most of her marbles, still able to enjoy her light mysteries I spent many nights at her place in Leisure World watching over her during the last months.Even at the end, she worried about me—always insisting that I make myself dinner. She complained I worked too hard. At one time, she ordered me to get a woman and get married. I had to gently say I would find a mate—or not—in my own good time.
Near the end, she was much easier to get along with than when I was younger. The fire had died out, but embers remained. The little old mystery fan in the bed wasn’t the woman who stared down a man with a baseball bat. I said good-bye to the force of nature a long time ago. I’ll miss her. Rest in peace, Helen Thaler.