I’m pressing pause on our Patagonian journey again today, to detour not only north to Mexico, but all the way to my Father’s House for a Mexican fiesta.
My 97-year-old friend and mentor, “Aunt” Helen, suffered a severe stroke on Christmas morning, sank into a coma, and woke up in Heaven on New Year’s Eve. I’m sure she’s enjoying the best party ever!
This morning, while gathered with other global workers at our annual conference in Argentina, we held a celebration of Helen’s life, followed by asado, an Argentine-style barbecue. More than a Mexican fiesta, the program and menu offered an international flavor that Helen would’ve loved.
Like the amazing authentic burritos she used to make when we visited, Helen’s life was…
Packed with Surprises
When she needed a birth certificate to join the U.S. Navy at age 19, Helen’s mother sent her to a Los Angeles orphanage, where she learned—for the first time—that her biological grandmother had dropped her off there, never to be seen or heard from again.
However, the shock cleared up several mysteries for Helen. First, she no longer had to wonder why she looked Mexican, or perhaps Navajo, when many of her cousins were Scandinavian-blond.
Second, her illegal adoption explained why she and her mother always seemed to be on the lam. Helen’s mom had chosen her at 6 months old out of all the children in the orphanage “because she laughed.” (How can I ever forget Helen’s rollicking good humor? She’s probably having a good laugh in Heaven right now.)
But the orphanage officials later declared the prospective adoptive family unfit and refused to finalize the paperwork. So Helen’s mother took her and fled to Mexico. After they returned, her mother changed addresses and jobs frequently so the authorities couldn’t trace them. Helen attended a different school every couple of years.
Wrapped in Grace
Yet, despite her birth as an unwanted, abandoned child and her upbringing in a dysfunctional home, Helen afterward clung to the verse, “God…set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through his grace…” (Gal. 1:15). She felt that God had plans for her life and that His hand had always protected her and spared her many things.
For instance, the grandmother who raised her, while not a godly woman, had a basic Christian background. She allowed Helen to attend the Vacation Bible Schools at neighborhood churches. Helen heard the Gospel and came to know the Lord Jesus through one of the pastors, also a well-known hymnwriter.
Because some of her mother’s five husbands and her own uncles tried to abuse her, Helen became fearful of men as a young child. But here once again, she glimpsed God’s blanket of grace in this difficult environment. Instead of giving into bitterness, she used the discernment God gave her to somehow perceive and elude the wicked intentions of these men.
“You will make known to me the path of life; In your presence is fullness of joy; In your right hand there are pleasures forever.” –Psalm 16:11
God also gifted her with a joyful spirit, demonstrated in charismatic friendliness, leadership ability, a sense of fun, and a talent for music. She won her first prize for singing in a talent contest at age 7.
Satisfying and Filling
Following high school graduation in the class of 1939, an aunt enrolled Helen in a riveting course, and during part of World War II she worked at Long Beach Crafts (of Rosie the Riveter fame), making parts for B-12 aircraft. For a while, she managed the midnight shift. Truly one of the greats of the greatest generation.
After joining the Navy, Helen was assigned to Camp Pendleton, San Diego, where she worked with a chaplain, sang with an orchestra on the naval radio station KGER, and even received fan mail from the sailors. I’m sure hanging out with Helen was a pretty entertaining Mexican fiesta.
Once the war was over, Helen entered a long training period during the 1950’s to become a missionary. She attended both Bible college and seminary while she worked as overseeing housekeeper and with a ward chaplain at the LA General Hospital. In those days, beautiful Helen had many beaux, but none seemed right for her.
Finally in 1960, when she traveled to serve in Chile in the aftermath of the world’s strongest earthquake, she unexpectedly met John, the Chilean man God had prepared for her. The rest, as they say, is history—a story of two “opposites-attract” people whose contrasting strengths complemented one another perfectly.
A Belly Laugh
John was soooo serious, Helen was soooo warm and funny. As a team, they both loved to talk about Jesus. And though they never had children of their own, they left this world “survived by” countless spiritual children and grandchildren.
As well as nieces and nephews like me.
In broad strokes, their missionary career took them across the United States and up and down the length of Chile several times over 50 years. Finally they ended in Coquimbo, where my husband and I now live among many of the people whose hearts Helen and John touched earlier.
Back in our Santiago days when I homeschooled my three girls, Helen often phoned me, always beginning with, “Oh, hi, mi hijita…” My little daughter. I felt adopted by the Queen. My kids vanished—they knew a call from Aunt Helen meant at least a half-hour recess.
What did we talk about? Honestly, I don’t remember. But we laughed a lot, and I needed her Mexican fiesta therapy in those days.
A few years after John passed away, Helen retired from Chile at the age of 88 to a Florida village where she relished life and ministry until this past Christmas breakfast. She’d been out on a girls’ shopping trip the day before—at 97.
My Mexican aunt sang and chuckled her way through life and made me laugh like no one else. She squeezed life’s lemons into lemonade and taught me that scraps and leftovers can be transformed into—if not an ongoing party—a burrito full of joyful moments if we choose to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).
Ándale, Aunt Helen!