June 04, 2006
Eulogy for Helen Riley Nichols
Hello. My name is Mark Nichols and I want to thank you all for coming here today to remember my mother, Helen Riley Nichols.
Helen Nichols was a wife, a mother, a nurse, a friend, and most of all a very courageous and special person. I am honored that she is my mother and it is my privilege to talk about her here today.
Born the third of four children in March of 1928, Mom grew up in Buffalo New York. Her father, James Walker Riley, and her mother, Helen Cameron Holden, had four children: James, Mary, Helen, and Gene. My maternal grandmother’s parents were born in Canada and their ancestors immigrated from England and Scotland. My mother’s father is descended from English and Irish stock.
My mother often talked about the houses she and her family lived in, referring to them by the street where they were located. She talked of riding the trolley cars, and walking to school. Her favorite childhood book was the story of Robin Hood and she sought out every version of the story she could find; for in the original story the hero dies at the end, and she wanted a happy ending.
I remember her telling me a story about how she imagined the sidewalks worked when she was a little girl. She imagined that they moved and all you had to do was stand on them to get where you were going. Of course you had to jump up and turn when you got to a cross street and needed to change direction. Mom excelled in school, and challenged the status quo in her own way. She was the only girl in her high school trigonometry course, and she aced the statewide test at the end of the semester. Her quietly competitive nature would exert its influence in her life time and again.
After high school Mom was ready to become a nurse. Her studies were interrupted when during the physical a spot was discovered on her lung and she was sent home to recover from possible tuberculosis. In the end she did not have TB and she returned to school, becoming a Registered Nurse before moving to New York City and earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Education, with honors, while working full-time. My mom was nothing if not determined.
Living in the greatest city on earth allowed her to indulge one of her great passions, classic music and the opera. Working in Brooklyn as a surgical nurse, and teaching new nurses allowed her to be successful and independent. Upon moving to a new apartment she discovered a bank of phone jacks in the closet; it seemed the previous tenant might have been running a book. When she called the phone company to get a phone installed they told her that address couldn’t have one by police order. Getting no satisfaction from the police she turned to the library. Her research led her to a regulation that stated neither the phone company or the police could prevent her from having a phone simply on the grounds that the previous tenant had abused them. When she called the telephone company and quoted chapter and verse to them, they not only scheduled an appointment to install her phone, they did so over a holiday weekend. Quiet determination once again.
She joined the Unitarian Universalist Church in Manhattan where she met my father, George K. Nichols. They were married in the fall of 1960, and I was born in May 1961. Within a year my father had taken a position at the AE Staley Manufacturing Company and we all moved to Decatur. Two more children followed, Amy Susan in 1962, and Christopher James in 1965.
For a time Mom gave up her career as a registered nurse and focused on raising her three children. I remember going to the old Decatur library, with its creaky floors and musty smells with my mom, just as I remember her reading Uncle Wiggley stories to me on the couch in our living room. I also remember my parents playfully tossing a pillow back and forth at each other across the room. As my parents have an Edison wax cylinder player, my mom dutifully toted it down to the elementary school each year so I could trump the other kids in show-and-tell.
My mother instilled in me many values, not the least of which was self-reliance. The first rainy day of grade school I put on my goulashes and slicker and proceeded to jump in every puddle between our house and the schoolyard. They next time it rained I asked her for a ride, since I had seen the other children getting rides, and she said no. Not to be cruel, but because walking in the rain wasn’t a bad thing. Not that I really minded, jumping in all the puddles was fun.
As a lark, because it was getting so much press the year it was released, my father bought for her a copy of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My mom enjoyed it so much she went and bought all the Beatles albums. Consequently I grew up in a house filled with music: arias from famous operas and ditties from John, George, Paul, and Ringo. To this day one of my favorite songs is Let It Be. And hearing any operatic music takes me back to playing in the splash of sunshine on the living room floor on Saturdays in winter, with the Metropolitan Opera (brought to you by Texaco) on the hi-fi.
With her children all in school my mother returned to work as a nurse. Not having practiced for more than ten years, she basically had to start over again at the bottom and work her way up. The quiet, yet fiercely competitive side of my mom shown through once again as she rapidly advanced from a humble second start as night shift substitute nurse. Before her second career as a nurse was over she would have advanced to night shift supervisor and finally head nurse. When the hospital restructured and closed her unit my mom continued to report for work every day. Her persistence was rewarded again when she was promoted to be the head of the sterile processing and distribution department at the hospital. Throughout it all however, I know that my mother’s greatest joy was working with patients, providing them with care. When she was a head nurse she worked every other weekend for years, and holidays alternating years. I think she liked those days best because she could set aside the administration part of her job and focus on her patients. To the end of her life whenever she would meet one of her former nurses they would always say that she had been the best boss they’d ever had.
My mom’s life wasn’t without tragedy. Her daughter, my sister, Amy died of leukemia at Christmas 1973. The loss of a child is devastating to any parent, and my mom was no different. Some of the most poignant memories I have are of sharing a tearful discussion about Amy with my mom. She didn’t hide any of the details from me, and her courage in sharing the truth helped me to overcome my grief. Perhaps I inherited some small measure of her determination and moxie.
My parents were fortunate to enjoy a long and healthy retirement together. After considerable lobbying by my father, Mom agreed to try vacationing with a trailer. The first trip was taken while Mom was still working, and I know she went into it with some apprehension. Mid way through the trip they called me and she said, “There is only one problem with this trip.” And I thought, uh oh, here it comes. “Three weeks isn’t nearly long enough.” With the travel trailer in tow they set off to see what they could see. For ten years they explored from Maine to Texas, from Florida to western Canada. I am so very glad that three weeks became ten years.
In the end I think my mom was happiest around her grandchildren: AJ, Kiel, Mellisa, Riley, and Alyx. She truly came to life when they entered her life. I was constantly reminded of the Bill Cosby line regarding the change parents go thru when presented with grandchildren. He said the reason they stopped being the person you remembered, and suddenly became nice and loving and giving, is that “they are old now, and want to get into heaven.”
I will always remember coming home past midnight from my job at Arby’s, pulling into the driveway only to see her light go out; she could sleep now that I was home safe. I will always remember her tucking me into bed at night. She imparted in me a love of real New York style cheesecake, bread stuffing made with Bell’s Poultry seasoning and finely prepared veal. I attribute my love of reading to her, and my father. I know that I am a sweet and gentle man in part due to the influence of my mom. And I hope that some of the quiet determination, strength, unselfishness, and courage she carried through out her life lives on in me.
They say a good mom lets you lick the beaters, but that a great mom first turns off the mixer. My mother was a great mom.