My two Helens

. June 14, 2013.

Mary Helen: why the double name, when a simple “Mary” would suffice?   I could never be “Helenless” having had the blessing of loving the two “Helens” who were my grandmothers.  My Grandmother Scheib, (note the formality) was a Penn State graduate in nutrition and a force of nature. My Grandfather Scheib was a man of two passions — medicine and farming — and lived a life of extremes.  Like her husband, my Grandmother Scheib followed suit.  One day she would be perfecting her “up-do”, serving shrimp and mimosas to the members of the Medical Auxiliary, and the next, wearing a cowgirl hat and hosting a BBQ for the Hereford Cattle Association.  The woman could perform Biblical miracles by feeding 250 single handedly.  Her philosophy was that it was just as easy to feed twelve as it was to feed a hundred.  You just need bigger containers. She was a woman of protocol and, thanks to her influence, to this day, I inwardly have a mini meltdown if one of the kids puts a milk carton on the dinner table.

The other Helen, my Gram, took a leap of faith, literally, by hopping on a train against her family’s wishes to pursue a nursing degree.  She was a surgical nurse who spent one too many hours picking up sterilized instruments.  Gram was the only person I knew who could pick up a piece of corn right out of a boiling pot and not even flinch.  She could have made it big as a stand-up comedian. The woman had a line for every occasion.  When asked, “Is that naturally curly hair Mrs. Shields?” A “Yes, $50 bucks worth!” was sure to follow. If you inquired about her age, she would ask, “Can you keep a secret?” After hearing a “yes” she would respond, “Well, so I can I!” The best advice she had to offer was “Always carry a big purse.” I never understood this until I dined with her and realized that leftover rolls fit nicely in an oversized bag.

My Gram was also a woman of determination.  She once pulled over at a rest stop so I could ask the nice hairy man with a “plumber’s crack” driving the Amway semi- truck if she could buy a box of soap. 
On a regular basis I witnessed the extreme differences between these two maternal ancestors. Grandmother would wear white gloves for church and afternoon tea gatherings on the lawn. Gram used her pair for baiting her hook while sitting cross-legged in the front of the fishing boat up north. While one told me the importance of remaining a virgin until marriage or death, the other would remind me that I was from a long line of passionate women. One taught me good personal hygiene and the other demonstrated the fine art and technique of squatting in the woods.

Grandmother would make “Martha-esque-like” cookies every holiday and Gram would help the girls and I decorate creations that looked downright obscene, especially the gingerbread people.
I pray that I possess best of each. It is the DNA of my Grandmother that instilled the mindset of giving back.  I live by the “starfish principal,” which means you can’t save everyone that washes up on your beach but it is pretty darn rewarding to help the ones you can by throwing them safely back to sea.


From Gram, I have learned to laugh at the face of adversity.  For some odd reason, one of her jokes that she told me in her 90s came to mind while I was getting a needle breast biopsy. She asked, “What did one saggy breast say to the other saggy breast?” “If we don’t get some support soon, people will think we’re nuts!” I think the nurses thought I was “losing it” when I started giggling uncontrollably.  Little did they know that even in their absence, my two Helens are with me.  One sits on my shoulder as a moral compass and the other is a continual reminder that you can get through anything with a sense of humor, a good pair of walking shoes, and a glass of Merlot. 

Mary Helen Darah has been in marketing and development for nonprofit organizations for the past six years, but her greatest role is being a mom to three amazing and diverse young women. Mary Helen has an innate ability to find humor in her trials, and hopes her writing will give others comic relief and insight through the challenges of parenthood.