Let me warn you this is not a typical memorial tribute, because its subject is anything but typical. You see, Helen Burgio was a force of nature in so many ways.
I particularly loved her sense of humor, though a few times when I teased her too hard or about the wrong things she let me know in no uncertain terms. Most often she would just smile and laugh. I’m the Mother, I know best… she liked to say!
Once when playing cards I began to chant her husband’s name which of course was my Father-in-Law who had passed away several years before. I was invoking his help from the other world to improve upon the sad hand I had been dealt. She looked and wryly smiled, saying that if anyone was going to receive help from “Johnnie” it would be her!
Of course we could say all the regular and admirable things about Helen. I mean good and sturdy things about a full life that lasted just over 94 years. Things like raising five children. Things like working hard, cooking good Italian food, being the union president at her work and much more. In fact, it is the “much more” part that for me gets interesting. You see, Helen was bigger than than any typical life contained by either/or stances. In so many paradoxical ways she was a both/and kind of woman. She refused to be fenced in by some narrow idea of consistency. After all, wasn’t it Walt Whitman who said, Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
For example, she believed fiercely in traditional ways and yet from a young age she routinely rejected tradition. She felt her children were all perfect and then proceeded to give them ample advice for improving themselves. She said everyone needs a partner and yet was a fierce proponent of smart partnering. She felt that especially woman should have their own resources so that only love, not financial need would hold their relationship together.
She was a force of nature because, like nature, she stayed fiercely true to herself. And when her truth demanded she face and resolve paradox and conundrum, she bravely confronted them both. After all courage is knowing the content of one’s own heart and following it. Of course, at times that path gets rocky and difficult, although never boring. And let me tell you neither was she.
Lastly, it seems to me that a wonderfully paradoxical woman who lived a full, courageous and vibrant life should have a somewhat paradoxical poem to honor her life and death. This little piece I wrote many years ago is for you Helen. In the meantime, we’ll remember all the many parts of your life, especially the way you laughed.
By Dale Biron
face we wear
grows old and weathered, torn
open by time,
tinted as dawn
like the late
ashen and crimson.
It will no longer
our deepest scars
from the long
sweet lines left