The Summer of Helga

An Essay on the things that stick.

Monthly subscribers here have been reading my serial novel, Bears in the Yard, and they know this: I’ve been exploring the notion of conversion. (Sign up to read Bears here.) When I use the term “conversion,” I do not necessarily mean to conjure the notion of salvation or enlightenment or spiritual actualization. Conversion can mean these things, but it occurs to me that conversions are myriad in life, often ordinary.

One day we are single, the next married.

One day we are childless, the next day chasing rug rats.

One day we are healthy, the next battling cancer.

Those conversions—the process of moving from one state of being to the next—are so often connected. And when I think about the earliest connections of conversion in my life, I think of two things: Helga and the Holy Family. Both were transcendent but only one in the colloquially spiritual sense of the word. What do I mean? Keep reading.

(For the record: I’d appreciate your feedback on this piece. I’m considering shopping it to a few publications and would love to hear your thoughts before I do.)

The Summer of Helga

I entered the National Gallery with no small amount of moaning. Only ten, the art I appreciated most came in the full-color comics in the Sunday paper, and this was no comics spread. The walls were impossibly bright and paintings hung as islands, each with small cards describing the artist, the year, the subject matter, the meaning. There was a statue in one room, a two-foot tall naked woman with an arched back. Some famous Russian egg across the room glinted at me.

I followed behind my mother, glancing at the landscapes, the sculptures, the eggs. We rounded a corner, and before entering a large room, she leaned down and said a name I’d never forget—Andrew Wyeth—and followed it with another—Helga. Some of these paintings would be nude, she said. If it made me uncomfortable, I could look away, though she did not say where exactly.

In the room, I saw her. The woman on the stool. On a bed. In front of a tree. Her face angular. Her body less so. It is the body I remember most, the way the light bent around it, the way it bent under the brush.

I was only ten, a boy who better understood the art of a baseball card than that of an oil painting. Still, I knew something about Wyeth’s paintings, even then. He was not simply a painter. He was an interpreter. He translated each hair, pulled individual strands from a pony tail to tell a story. He gave voice to the light that exposes and the shadow that obscures. In the exposure, Helga was vulnerable, known, explored, and it was this knowing that turned my childhood cheeks pink. Sometimes, even now, I am still that child.

Helga was the first. First nude—yes. Even more, though, Helga was an introduction to epiphany. She whispered: There are some things you cannot unsee, some things that follow you forever.

***

Epiphany—a manifestation of something transcendent, something outside of us. The summer of Helga was the summer of epiphany, one that culminated in a different sort of epiphany, one still working in shadow and light motifs. 

I wandered into the sanctuary, a confused Baptist with virgin nose to incense. There was what appeared to be a birdbath by the door, and the girl in front of me dipped her finger in it before crossing herself. I passed the pool, eyes fixed on my feet, figuring it’s better to ignore what you don’t know than to do something foolish. 

The sanctuary held a sort of haze—smoke, whatever—and shards of sun highlighted individual particles floating through it. The sky-blue ceiling was dotted with gold dots. Stars maybe? In single-file fashion, the class of which I was the newest member made our way into our designated pews. Each knelt before entering the pew. I shuffled in and sat while my neighbors knelt in prayer.

Students filtered in through three entrances. Each wore white polo shirts over khaki pants or plaid skirts, depending on gender, and each understood the pool of water, the sign of the cross, the way to kneel before entering the pew, the way of silent prayer. Maybe each was too familiar with the crucifix and the statutes of the lady and man flanking the altar, too, because they paid no more attention to the three than they might the furniture in their grandmother’s house—outdated, uninteresting. I could not stop staring at those statues, though, couldn’t help noticing something like sadness in the stone.

A man in a robe walked into the aisle, smiling. Welcome, he said. Remember the response to the Psalm, he said. Practice one time, he said, and two hundred children responded in unison, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

The words clanged against the arched ceiling, the echo covering us for what felt like an eternity. How was there so much sound? Had the stained glass, the stone Marys, the fourteen Jesuses all chimed in?  Satisfied, the priest nodded, retreated to the rear of the church. Silence fell like a curtain, except for the pops and creaks of the pews under the shifting weight of the kindergarteners. Sister Sarto leaned forward, caught my eye, smiled. “Do your best to follow along,” she said.

For the uninitiated, the Mass is a somber game of musical chairs, a full-body experience. Standing. Sitting. Kneeling. Responses even the youngest seemed to know. I was always the last to catch the cue, the most surprised when my classmates repeated some rhythmic phrase. For an hour, my cheeks burned, my stomach churned. I took it all in as data.

Sister Sarto had warned me against entering the Eucharist line prior to entering the sanctuary. I was not Catholic, she said, and only Catholics were permitted at the Lord’s table. This, I found, was a surprising relief. If I could not enter the line, I would not trip on my shoe laces or step on the back of Jenna Kohler’s Keds or find myself standing spotlight-frozen in front of the priest like an idiot in an art museum. Still, the good sister said, there’d be plenty of room for me at the table of peace. So, when the passing of the peace sneaked up on me, she turned, extended her hand, and in her Irish brogue said, “Peace be with you.”

And it was. 

I was a foreigner. I’d entered a country with a different set of customs, a certain sort of art, a distinct smell, a weird rhythm. Only ten years old, the new kid in the class, and all of these unrelenting religious conventions were terrifying. The moment of peace pushed the terror away and drew me into a sort of participation. That participation was my epiphany.

Some enter the Catholic church as babies, pulled by history, family tradition, and the ancient sacrament of water. Others are baptized by immersion, perhaps even drowned slowly and over time. They are pushed and pressed by some force heavier than the stone altar until they cry Uncle! I am in the latter category, and it’d take another three decades for me to relent. Why’d I give in? It was the epiphany that wouldn’t let go.

Childhood memories are full of funhouse images—contours exaggerated or elongated or thickened. Still, these are mine, and they’ve stuck to my ribs like good bread for over three decades now. I have tried to shake them loose. It is impossible. Epiphanies might begin outside of us, but they root down, press in, haunt. The mystery of epiphanies—those painted and those carved from stone—began haunting me during the Summer of Helga. The epiphany of those mysteries haunts me still. Now, its ghost is in me. And that ghost is called peace.


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