Remembering the life of Mary Kay Wood Heltsley.

December 6th, 2012

My first memories of her are vague ones. I've always known her since the days when she used to feed, dress, and take care of me. She was like a mother to me... OK, she was my mom.

Her own life started by being born in Peru, Indiana to Alvin Roscoe Wood and Mary Lamanda Betzner Wood. It was December 5, 1943, and she was taken to the family farm just outside of the tiny town of Bunker Hill, Indiana where she spent the rest of her life up to age 18. Her life was as typical as any farm girl could expect growing up with hogs, chickens, and 3 brothers.

At around age 9 or so, while she was away at Summer church camp, the family moved into town, and renovated a house on East West Street... or was that West East Street? At any rate, the street ran North to South. Mary Kay attended Bunker Hill Grade School, then Neade Middle School, and finally graduated from Bunker Hill High School in the class of 1961. The year that is written the same upside-down, or right-side up. While in middle school she fell down on the playground and chipped a couple of her front teeth. It required silver caps to repair the teeth, which Mary Kay always thought made her look ugly. It would be a few years after being married before she had white caps put on.

During her high school years I know she had a crush on someone with the initials of JD, but she never would say who it was. It slipped out once when she was talking about how she picked some of her names for her kids. It's the reason her daughter Jill Darlene came to have the same initials. But that's all I know about that. Mary Kay tape recorded her personal memories of her life and family, but at this time I haven't had the opportunity to listen to those tapes, and I'll bet she still didn't mention it there either.

Her other high school activities included playing clarinet in the marching band. Her prom dress was a lemon yellow dress made of crepe, or taffeta, or some rustly material. Both the dress and her band uniform hung up for years in her mom's upstairs closet. When I was old enough to be in band, I inherited her old wooden clarinet. The original mouthpiece was missing, even in her day, and it had a white plastic replacement. I had a black plastic mouthpiece, but it was never quite the right size, and the horn always played notes a little flat.

Remember poodle skirts? No? Me either, but Mary Kay had one. There are pictures of her wearing it in her high school yearbook, as well as a photo in grandma's collection. I'm not sure where those might be at the moment. I'm told that Terry has the yearbooks, and I think my aunt may have grandma's photo albums. That corduroy skirt with the decorations and adornments also hung up in grandma's upstairs closet for a long time.

During her senior year, Mary Kay met Carl Ray Heltsley, an Air Force Sergeant at Bunker Hill Air Force Base. After dating for about a year, they were married on February 24, 1962. A convenient date for Carl. It was his birthday, and insurance against never having an excuse to forget their anniversary. She soon left her mom, dad, and brothers: Donald Dean, Dale Alvin, and Joseph Curtis, for the wandering life of a military wife.

Her travels with the military began with a duplex in Peru, Indiana, where a few months later her family grew to include me, Keith. If you count up the months, you might think she had an early start on bringing me into the world, but I actual wasn't due until late in November. It seems that Mary Kay was anxious to get this little monster out of her, and took matters into her own hands to speed up the process. She had been Shopping a lot, on her feet a lot, and had been taking laxatives. On October 31, 1962, Keith Eric Heltsley was the best trick or treat surprise she ever had. Mary Kay had a streak in her that wanted her kids to have special events. I found out a few years later that she was worried that having a birthday on a holiday might be a traumatic thing for her child. Are you kidding? A birthday where a kid can put on crazy costumes, and roam all over the neighborhood, and get a pile of free candy? All I have to say is, "Way to go mom!"

Next, her small family moved to Homestead Air Force Base, Florida. Down near the Keys, and subtropical environment. I don't remember any hurricanes, but soon she would have Terry Lynn, and the two of us were all the hurricanes she needed. We lived in a little white house, with a breezeway between the house and garage. I used to have a mild fear of walking through grass, and of snakes. Especially if there were trees around, since I irrationally thought that snakes would jump out of the branches and get me. It eventually went away, but I even avoided walking on anything green including floor tiles and carpets. Imagine my dread when at the age to start school, there was strip of green tile near the edges of the hallway where students were expected to walk while in line. Also the green carpet in our new home at the time. And mom wondered why I had habit of hopping from one chair to another to go across the living room.

It was all her own fault though. I don't remember the incident, but I'm told that as a toddler in Florida, I had a stuffed teddy bear. As Mary Kay watched me pick it up in the yard, while walking back inside the house, she saw something fall out of it. It was a snake, and she swore she saw it crawl out of a hole in the stuffed animal's seam. Her screams, and frantic efforts to keep me safe from the dreaded snake probably scarred my little mind for years. And worse than if she could have composed herself differently.

After a stay in Florida from 1963 through 1965, Mary Kay and the family moved back to Peru, where Carl was honorably discharged from the Air Force. This time we lived in the other half of that duplex in Peru. Carl worked for Square D, a manufacturer of electrical parts, then was hired by McDonald Douglas, and the family moved to Picker Street in Wood River, Illinois.

Mary Kay always claimed she preferred Country and Western music over that wild and crazy hippie music. Meaning Rock and Roll. As a preschooler in Wood River, I used to watch her as she did morning exercises along with Jack lalaine on the TV. She had a couple favorite soap operas she liked to watch, but the only one I can remember her watching is, the Edge of Night. I preferred Dark Shadows, with Barnabus Collins. He was a vampire, and with his witch and werewolf friends, did all the usual scandalous bed hopping things regular people did. But it was much cooler, since they were vampires, witches and werewolf’s. Eventually, she got tired of the trashiness of the soaps and just quit watching them. Good for her.

Did I mention she preferred Country music? Here's a secret for you. I used to catch her singing along to the pop station that played the mix of hits from Rock and Roll, and Rhythm and blues. That's right, she would be in the kitchen making lunch, and singing along to the Beatles, or the Supremes. Although if a song came on she didn't care for, the radio would be promptly shut off, or the station changed to something more tame. Usually KMOX, the talk station from St Louis, Missouri. (Now it's KMOV, but it still has the same talk and news format).

As a teen ager, Mary Kay always felt like a grown up, trapped in a kids body. She was eager to live the life that she was now living. She had a good husband to provide for her, a decent house to live in, and two little boys to terrorize her and drive her nuts. Well, maybe she never bargained for that last part.

Despite her adult achievements, when it came to holidays, birthdays, and special events, Mary Kay would go overboard. Her inner child emerged and she had as much fun as the kids when birthday parties were planned. There could never be a surprise party, since she couldn't ever keep her excitement over it a secret. There always had to be a birthday cake, and a special dinner with the favorite food of the guest of honor. And gifts? Birthdays were like a second Christmas.

Holidays were always times for a feast. BBQ for the 4th of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day. Thanksgiving was usually spent in Indiana with her family, and the food was abundant enough to feed everybody who attended for days. Brothers, cousins, uncles and aunts, great uncles and aunts, and more. Easter was another big day for gift giving, and baskets full of colored eggs and candy. Working with her mom, Mary Kay helped as much, or more, than the kids did in coloring the Easter eggs and decorating them. It had to be done right, and she made sure the eggs looked pretty, and that the mess was kept under control.

Christmas was always the king of holidays. Mary Kay and Carl often used a Christmas club account at the bank to make sure they had enough money to splurge. Gifts and trimmings were rarely bought on credit. If they didn't have money, it wasn't bought. Sometimes in times of hardship, the comment, "It looks like we won't have much of a Christmas this year," were muttered. Still, the trimmings would hardly show it. Mary Kay always made sure all the details were covered. Besides the holiday dinner, stockings were prepared, gifts secretly wrapped, and put under the tree in the wee hours of the night. There were always significantly more under the tree on Christmas day than there were the night before. Santa always had to do his work, even after her kids were old enough to be doubtful about the jolly old elf, and help with the stocking stuffing.

Mary Kay had a good sense of what kinds of gifts were good ones that her kids liked. On occasion, she might give gifts that she liked to play with as well. She showed me how to do the hula hoop. Not only swiveling it around your hips, but few special tricks she knew. Board games were a combination of fun games that one of her kids waned, or educational ones, or ones that she liked, and taught her kids to like as well. She was meticulous at keeping baby books on all of her kids. Even after she lost her eyesight, she had each of us write in additions as the pages needed to be filled in. All the first events of a kids life, the good accomplishments, and even some report cards to keep us humble.
In the Spring of 1966, Mary Kay was very pregnant, but it was Easter time, and she didn't want to miss the usual trip back to Indiana to be with her family. After a full week of fun vacation time, the car was packed up, and the late night road trip to make sure Carl could get to work on time Monday morning was fast approaching. In fact, we were all piling into our old 1962 White Pontiac Catalina station wagon. Mary Kay suddenly began having the early signs of going into labor. Travelling was out of the question.

As I recall, we stayed overnight, dad phoned his boss to tell him of the delay, and mom went to the hospital in Peru. The actual chain of events is fuzzy in my mind, but Terry and I were driven all the way back to Wood River to stay with dad's oldest sister, Wilma Heltsley Motsinger, then drove all the way back to Indiana to be in the waiting room for Jill to be born. Yes, waiting room. In those days it was unheard of for the husband to be in the delivery room. After a suitable amount of time, Mary Kay, Carl, and Jill all made the trip home.

I remember staying at aunt Wilma's, but my memory doesn't connect it to Jill's birth,, but that doesn't mean that this wasn't the time. I remember waking up at her house, and having a breakfast of corn flakes with bananas on it, Yum. Uncle Kenny wasn't exactly known for his milk drinking habits. Instead he made a face at the sweet, sugary concoction, and said something like, "You ruined it. That's no way to eat corn flakes." Without saying why it was messed up, he promptly popped open a beer, doused his corn flakes with it, and ate the whole bowl of unadorned cereal. Of course he drank down all the rest of his beer. He wasn't much for letting something like that go to west. What a guy, and I'm smiling when I say that. Beer habits aside, he really was a great guy, dedicated to his family, and a Korean war vet.

Back to Mary Kay. In 1967, the rental house in Wood River was becoming more cramped for the growing family. Plus, our land lady had a son who was moving back in the area, and she wanted to have him live in the place. A house was purchased at 508 Missouri Av, in South Roxana, Illinois. That same year the village rezoned properties, and the house number changed to 908. It was built in the early 1940's, and was bought from one of the 3rd grade school teachers at the elementary school, Mr. and Mrs. Gebalein. It had a big yard for kids to play in, and a nice kitchen with a window to keep an eye on the happenings in the yard. It was a small kitchen, but had features that made it the ideal house for Mary Kay.

Around 1968, she began to have trouble with her eyes. Cataracts were diagnosed, and with a history of blindness in the family where cataracts is the first symptom for worse things down the road, her mom wept over the bad news. In those days lens implants weren't done, so Mary Kay wore glass contact lenses, and had thick lens glasses for times when she chose not to wear contacts, or hadn't put them in yet. She could still drive a car, and Carl bought her a used sky blue Ford Falcon to do her running around.

Mary Kay would sing in the church choir, teach in Vacation Bible School, and even taught a teen age girls group called, Acteens. Since Terry and I were young, she thought she could both lead the class and keep us under control for the session. Did I mention that Terry and I were all the hurricanes that mom could handle? Long story short, and saving forgotten, embarrassing activities, we got her kicked out of the class. Too much of a distraction for the girls I guess.

Through the years, she always made sure all her kids participated in Sunday School, and in all church activities. Her inner child would come out for special parties, making treats for Christmas cantatas to pass out to the congregation for example. One event that comes to mind is when the adult class wanted to have a costume party for Halloween. She was determined to make costumes for her and Carl. He went as a penguin, and she wanted to try to make everybody guess who she was. Her costume was to cover every part of her body. To make a robot costume, she glued a small box on top of a large box. Her body and head would be hidden. She took pains to cover the boxes in white butcher paper, and decorate the outside with all sorts of simulated buttons, knobs, and light up displays. All hand drawn, or glued on, nothing actually lit up. Her excitement was as giddy as a girl as she anticipated that nobody would be able to guess who she was.

The big moment came, and as she came in the door, everybody knew who she was, "Hello Carl and Mary Kay. Glad you could make it." It burst her bubble. How did they know it was her? What gave her away? It really depressed her and put her in a dark mood for the party. Not that she didn't have fun, but after all that hard work, people still knew who she was.

It really shouldn't have been much of a surprise. The people at the party saw them arrive together, in the same car, and Carl's suit didn't cover his face. That penguin suit hung in the hall closet for years, and even the robot suit, rejected by Mary Kay, became a fixture for the kids to play with in the basement.

The house in South Roxana had a big yard, and since it was owned by Mary Kay and Carl, and not a rental property, they could have a garden. That first season was filled with getting settled in, but every year she lived in the house, a garden was part of the property, and Mary Kay's life. She used to do as much as anybody when it came to planting, hoeing, and harvesting the produce. Carl took care of the initial heavy work of plowing and tilling, but Mary Kay ruled the kitchen when it came to canning and preserving. After moving into the house, and Carl was laid off at McDonald Douglas, the garden ensured that nobody was going to go hungry.

Everybody was recruited to do gardening chores, and taught when to pick the various vegetables and herbs grown. Picking beans and peas, tomatoes, okra, onions, cucumbers, and so much more.

In 1970 Mary Kay got a surprise. Even though she had her tubes tied when Jill was born, a new baby was on the way. January 13, 1971, her final son was born, Steven Dean Heltsley. Shuffling kids around from room to room, and using a spare room in the basement, a place was made for everybody in the house.

About a year later, she had another surprise that wasn't such a happy one. Her eyesight declined even further. Jill was at a birthday party for a friend of hers, and while she was gone Mary Kay took the time to vacuum her room. Suddenly sometime happened, and it was like a curtain fell over her vision. Later, the doctor would identify it as a burst blood vessel, and the curtain was actually blood filling her eye. It cleared up, but marked the beginning of a downward spiral for her. How did Jill get home? Mom drove her blue Falcon, very slowly, and with me giving her directions. "You're doing good, going down the middle of the road. Get ready to turn, slow down, slow down, OK. turn right..." You get the idea. We made a good team, but I wouldn't want to do it on a regular basis. We didn't.

It was also in those years that the family decided to travel, do some camping, and take the opportunity to see more of the country before Mary Kay lost her eyesight entirely. Carl built a wood and canvas canoe, camping gear, and a trailer especially outfitted for camping.

The trailer was a unique one, and got comments from everybody who came by the camp site. Side compartments opened to show dresser drawers for clothes, and huge cargo spaces for tossing in sleeping bags, and sundry other food and camping items. Special compartments underneath held the duffels we folded tents and screen enclosures for the picnic table to keep the flies out. It even had a propane bottle to power both a camp stove and refrigerator at the rear of the trailer. It was hand built, not by Carl, but it's just the kind of design that he might have done himself. It even had an attachable cargo box for the top, to carry more gear. Add a luggage rack to the top of the car, and even the canoe had a place to ride to our destinations.

We all had bicycles for kids, and an adult sized bike that Mary Kay shared with Carl. Once her eyesight declined too far for her to drive comfortably and safely, she would ride her bike around town. Usually to the Post Office, or to Charlie's IGA, taking baby Steve on the little seat bolted on over the rear tire. Mary Kay's eyes were getting worse, but when was in denial over it, and claimed to see better than she actually could.

There little ways when you could tell. She would clearly not recognize something you handed to her, or put in her way. her handheld magnifying glass and large print bible were too hard for her to use. Then one day as I drove my bike with her to the store we neared a particularly dangerous corner. Cross traffic wasn't always busy, but it had the right of way. I could see a car approaching, and noticed that mom wasn't slowing down. I called out to her to slow down, then to stop. I wasn't sure if the car would take his right of way, or be watching for people on bikes. If mom could see the car, she didn't show any sign of it.

The driver did stop, but in dramatic, tire squealing, horn blowing style. Mom veered left, hit the ditch, and fell off her bike. It was the last time she drove any kind of vehicle. Putting the bag of groceries back into the baby seat, we walked the bikes the rest of the way home.

The custom of camping, canoeing, and travelling on our vacation times continued up to the time Carl was killed by a drunk driver. Long after Mary Kay had entirely lost her eyesight.

When Mary Kay was finally legally then totally blind, it never stopped her from wanting to participate in social circles. She was very independent at homemaking, and all the aspects of it. She didn't do as much work in the garden, but she still did the lion share in preparing the harvest for canning. Snapping beans and peas, processing tomatoes, and other vegetables. She was never without someone who could read her the many recipes she had. Though she often cooked and did kitchen chores herself, she taught each of her kids to cook, and helped in the kitchen.

Heroic as she may have seemed to people who knew her, overcoming blindness wasn't easy. Mary Kay was a reluctant student in matters of independence and coping with blindness. She went through numerous nervous breakdowns, and as a coping measure to deal with blindness and family her weigh increased.

With her kids growing rapidly, Mary Kay became more of a domestic manager. Especially after Carl's death, she grew more accustomed at directing others to work her garden, take care of the lawn, make house repairs, and even in the kitchen and homemaking chores that she onc did on her own.

Over time, and with declining health, Mary Kay relied more on her hired homemakers to help in daily living matters. Up until the end she made a wonderful home economics teacher as she directed her homemakers on the proper way she wanted the garden tended, canning done, and recipes to make.

I could go on for longer, but I’ve already gone on for long enough. This is a quick survey of her life. Make comments if you have something to add that I missed.

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