Helen Gabriel and her family literally changed the course of my life. That’s a pretty dramatic statement and not one I make flippantly. Still, I am sitting here on my couch today, thirty-five and a half years later, overwhelmed with love and gratitude for one of the most generous and loving families I know. They were led by their matriarch, Helen.
The Gabriels lived on a dairy farm just outside of Rockdale, in a large white farmhouse that was always filled with the sounds of conversation, laughter and the smell of home-cooking. There were six children in the family, all were older than I. Our families had become acquainted years earlier and had known each other for longer that I could remember. I suppose it should not have been a surprise that when the five of us had nowhere to go, had no money and were living in a single-cab truck, that we would reach out to the Gabriel family for help.
I was riding in the back of the truck in a fever-induced haze when I heard the crunch of gravel beneath our tires and felt the truck slow to a stop. I had developed a high fever while riding in back of the truck and was lying on soggy boxes while it rained that late August day. The next few days were a blur. Helen and her family welcomed us warmly, fed us and let us gave us a place to rest. A few days later I recovered from my illness after receiving lots of love and care from Helen. This sweet family offered us housing there on the dairy, in a 23-foot travel trailer located behind their home. I was so embarrassed to impose on them, but so thankful to be out of that truck. I loved visiting the dairy barn, watching the dairy process in a spotless barn that smelled of bleach, milk and of cows.
I began school in a nearby community and rode the bus home to the Gabriel’s house. When I got off the bus each day, I pretended that the large farm house was actually my home, too embarrassed to admit to my fellow bus riders that I actually lived in the trailer behind the house. Though I had typical teenage pride, I still loved the dairy and so appreciated our time there.
The first weekend at the Gabriel Dairy Farm, one of Helen’s daughters convinced me to go on a blind date with the cousin of her then boyfriend. It took a lot to convince me. Helen told me from the beginning that Mark was “as good as they come” and she was right. I finally agreed to go on that first date and was courted there at the Gabriel Dairy by the man I eventually married thirty years ago. A few months later, after meeting Mark, our family moved into a home in the area where we lived until I graduated from High School.
Through the years, I continued to visit with Helen and would see her around Rockdale on occasion. When I did happen to run into her, brilliant blue eyes would light up, her face would soften and I knew I could count on her to hug and kiss me and call me “baby”. She was excited about our wedding, the birth of our children, our careers and the purchase of our homes. She was one of the few constants in my life. Though I could go months and sometimes years without seeing or talking to her, when we did get to visit it was like we were never apart. She loved me, I knew and felt that and I loved her in return.
Last year, when Helen fell ill, I visited her a few times at the Dairy. We reminisced and talked about those tough early days. One day, I asked Helen about the day we showed up at her house unannounced.
“How in the world did you do it– a family of five led by adults with questionable decision-making skills, there unexpectedly on your doorstep when you had a full house already. I just don’t know if I would have opened my home like you did, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Helen smiled and shook her head. “Oh baby, you needed help and I had what you needed. That’s just all there is to it.”
How can it be that simple? There she lay, in pain, her face still glowing with that sweet smile, with such certainty.
“Helen, you completely changed my life, you know that right? I feel I can never repay you.”
“Oh baby, I just helped a little. You would have done the same thing.”
“I love you, Helen.”
“I love you too, baby.”
I remember clearly when Helen kissed my cheek and hugged me one last time.
She died on a Monday, April 10, 2017. The world lost such a bright light, but I know Heaven rejoiced. I believe that we are each a part of a master plan. I think God puts people in our lives at just the right time to guide us, encourage us and sometimes even to challenge us. Because of Helen, I knew the true meaning of compassion. Because of Helen, a prayer was answered and after years of attending numerous schools each year, I finally got to end my high school career in one city, one school. Because of Helen, I met and married the love of my life. Because of Helen, I got to know unconditional love for most of my adult years. Because of Helen, my life has been enriched and I look for opportunities to give back. Thank you God, for sweet Helen.