Student Story: “Helena Hetty Harper Rice”

by Memoir Mentor on February 16, 2009

I am continuing my practice this teaching term of posting a student story on my website each week to show off the good writing being done in my classes. This story was written by Joan Rambo, a professional genealogist who has attended my classes for many years. She is the current president of the Orange County Genealogy Society, and in that capacity takes groups of people to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City each spring.

joan-rambo-2As you read Joan’s piece, notice how dialogue helps illuminate the people in the story. Not only does Joan tell us what her grandmother was like, she shows us by letting Grandma reveal herself through what she says. I also like the details Joan adds here and there to show what her grandparents looked like. She avoids a big distracting paragraph filled with physical description. Instead, she shows us a bit here and there to help us form a picture in our minds.

Here’s what Joan says about her story: “This story began as one of Dawn’s in-class projects to quickly write about a holiday. One particular Halloween came to mind. Later I realized I could elaborate a little more about Grandma Rice, and the story grew. This almost makes Grandpa sound like a milquetoast, but he wasn’t. I wrote about Grandpa before, and what I learned from him the summer of 1942 in Banning, California.”

Helena Hetty Harper Rice
by Joan Rambo

“Trick or treat,” chirped the happy young voices. Their little feet shuffled as they impatiently waited for someone to open the front door.

But inside, Helena shifted in her wheel chair and snorted, “Humph. Why do parents send their children out to go begging from door to door? Emo, don’t open that door. They’ll get tired and move on.”

My grandpa, dressed in his usual bib overalls and long-sleeved flannel shirt, settled back in his comfortable chair and sat there quietly. Sure enough, you could hear their restless little feet turn and quickly skip down the walk on their way to their next stop, in a hurry to make up for lost time at this house.

As I sat in the living room of my grandparents’ Gardena home, I too shifted in my chair, but from embarrassment. As a teenager I no longer went trick or treating, but I had been one of those who went “begging from door to door” when I was younger. My grandmother was a stiff- necked no-nonsense kind of adult. Mom told me she only remembered her mother kissing her once. Mom was sick and her mother tucked her in bed and lightly kissed her on her forehead. When Uncle Charlie heard Mom recalling that kiss, he said, “I don’t remember ever being kissed by Mom.” And yet, Grandma wasn’t mean. What happened in her life that turned her that way? Why couldn’t she show affection?

Grandma thought children should be seen and not heard. Until that day in 1975 when she died, I still had that feeling—a child in her presence. 


I spent the summer of 1942 with Grandma and Grandpa in Banning, California. They had three acres, which included the comfortable little white house, big old weathered barn, rabbit hutches, pens for chickens, pigs and cows, and an apricot orchard. Grandma and I would sit in the shade of their big elm tree. It was like an inviting patio with comfortable chairs scattered around. We cut the apricots in half, removed the pits and laid them out on huge wooden trays for Grandpa to dry. Grandma fussed, “You’re eating as many as you’re getting ready.” But I don’t think she was mad. Not like the time my cousin Don visited and we ran out to Grandpa’s garden, picked tomatoes and carried them back to where we sat under the elm tree. Warm and fresh, they tasted so good. Don bit a hole in one of his tomatoes and sucked out the soft juicy insides. At age seven, I was just two years younger, and I followed suit. The warm red juice ran out the corner of my mouth and trickled down my chin. Then we’d throw the remains over the fence into the orchard. Grandma caught us; she had a real fit about us wasting tomatoes. That time she was mad, for sure.

Grandpa butchered and dressed some rabbits to sell to the grocery store in town. When I went with him, I got a treat. But, darn old Grandma told Grandpa, “No chocolate.” While Grandpa sold his rabbits, I picked out a 50/50 ice cream bar, even though I didn’t like the orange frosted covering on the vanilla ice cream. When I’d licked the last of the ice cream from the wooden stick, I looked to see if I was lucky enough to win a free one. Sure…lucky. I would only be lucky if it said my next free ice cream had a chocolate covering.

When my grandparents moved on out to Yucca Valley, sometimes our family got together over the holidays and Grandpa would try to entice my mom and Aunt Wilma by saying, “If you girls would just whip together a batch of divinity, I’ll beat it.”

“Now Emo, those girls are here to visit, not mix up some divinity. Besides, you don’t need to be eating that stuff anyway.” I didn’t care all that much for divinity—I was a fudge lover—but Grandma’s words always sounded harsh, and I felt sorry for Grandpa. I could tell he really wanted some divinity. Sometimes it was mixed up, but sometimes Grandma won out.

I remember strolling into Grandma’s kitchen as a youngster. “I’m hungry,” I whined.

“There are some bananas and apples in the cupboard,” answered Grandma.

Ewwwe. Grandma’s fruit was always ripe, real ripe. I liked apples that were crisp and crunchy, not ripe and almost mushy. And bananas with black spots turned me off. “They don’t sound good. What else do you have?”

“Well then, you’re not hungry.” She tilted her head, with its short bobbed haircut, and gave me “the look.”

She had me there, I just wanted something sweet to munch on, but I wasn’t starving. More than likely I was bored. I sure wasn’t hungry enough to eat the “ripe” fruit Grandma offered. And I ambled outside to play.

I remember the first time Grandma told a slightly off-colored joke in front of me. I was a teenager by then and, besides feeling a little embarrassed, I experienced a new   feeling—I was now included with the adults, Mom and Aunt Bernice. I didn’t know Grandma even listened to, let alone told jokes like that. But I noticed that type of joke was only shared among female company, never when the men were around. Live and learn.

Live and learn I did the day Grandma gave me an Indian head penny. After Grandpa passed away in 1964, Aunt Wilma and her husband moved in and took care of Grandma in her home in Santa Ana. Uncle Ernie died and Aunt Wilma went to live with her daughter. So, Uncle J.C., his wife, and their children moved in with Grandma. Mom and I visited her from time to time during those years. I don’t remember the exact year, but I was a young adult, married with two small boys, when Mom and I visited Grandma that day. And I don’t know why she brought out a few old coins to show us, either. It was just the three of us sitting at her big old dining table. “Wow, Grandma, this is an old Indian head penny.”

With a stiff arthritic finger she pushed it across the oil cloth-covered dining table. “Take it,” she said. I felt like she thought I was gushing over the coin because I wanted it for myself. It made me feel uncomfortable.

“Oh no, Grandma, I was just surprised you had an old coin like that.”

“Take it.” She pushed it closer to me. I gazed at her face. Suddenly I had this strange feeling. She really wanted me to have it. I gingerly picked it up, wrapped it in a hanky, and carefully put it in my purse.

Later as we drove away I turned to Mom. “I felt funny about taking that penny and wasn’t going accept it,” I said. “But somehow I got this feeling she really meant for me to take the penny, and I’d hurt her feelings if I didn’t.”

Slowly Mom replied, “I’m so glad you took it, Joan. I know she did want you to have it.”

I now had a new insight about Grandma. New feelings stirred in my heart that day. I felt a warm tenderness for her I’d never felt before. Beneath that tough exterior, Grandma did have real feelings. Were there other Indian head penny incidents? Did we miss what she may have tried to show us?

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