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In Memoriam: My Grandmother, 1923-2018


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In Memoriam: My Grandmother, 1923-2018

Tyler Thigpen

I am one of Mom’s (that is, Nita’s) grandsons. When Mom’s husband, RB (my grandfather, Pop) passed away, Mom gave me permission to share family reflections about Pop under two conditions: that I what I say be #1 brief, and #2 not mushy. I think Mom would also want it this way. So, I’ll start with this: 

In 1944, when Mom was 21 and single. And World War II was nearing its end. She volunteered for the Georgia Civil Air Patrol, learned to fly a plane, and guarded the Georgia coastline by flying with a spotter, and looking out for U-boats and German spies who were trying to sneak onto our nation’s shores. 

What kind of a woman in 1944, 21 and single, signs up for this? 


This is the woman whose life we’re celebrating today. 

And that’s just a snapshot. 

Mom learned to love Jesus at Norwich Street Baptist Church in Brunswick, GA, growing up with her Mom and Papa. She became a Lutheran when she married Pop, and has always claimed that as her own ever since. She always loved the old hymns. … And big band music.

She lived thru the Depression and learned how to make a little go a long way. Including reusing tape, making her kids mayonnaise sandwiches, and saving money in a jar which she tried to hide from Lin and Joan, but couldn’t. One memory we grandchildren share is Mom painstakingly opening Christmas presents. Not quickly, no. At a leisurely pace. So she could save and reuse every square of wrapping paper she was given. 

The wrapping paper itself was probably our best gift to her because everything that came inside the wrapping paper…she took back to the store. The only way you could get Mom to keep a gift you gave her was to make it with your bare hands or lose the gift receipt. She loved to shop. Not to buy things. Just shop, and shop. And just like walk through the stores. Usually Macy's. Just looking. 

We grandkids got our nicknames from Mom: Matt, Duffie, Tye, and Lollie. We’re grateful for lots of things about Mom, like the tomato sandwiches she’d make us, the newspapers she’d share with us (especially “the funnies” section), and the watermelon she’d cut for us—on her wooden, cable spool table outside next to her garden, and that clothesline, and that utility shed, and that maroon fence, and that screen door, and those daylilies. She kept her granddaughter Meredith full-time when Meredith was a baby until she was preschool age; and then after school when Lin was working, and she snuck Meredith Twinkies before she went home for dinner…which infuriated Lin. 

Mom also loved birds. Bird books, Bird houses, Bird clocks, Bird broaches, Bird baths, Bird watching, Bird feeders, A bird Christmas tree.

More seriously though, her whole life was her family....every year, every day. Pop, her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren. She loved us all unconditionally for all of our lives! And was so proud of each one of us! My mom thinks Mom would have been happy to have her kids live with her always...especially Randy, her baby! 

When my mom, Joan, was a little girl, Mom was obsessed with keeping the sun off her skin. Always putting her in a long sleeve shirt and hat. Every day they went to the beach, and Mom insisted Joan play under the pier so she wouldn't get sunburned. Mom agonized over Lin's thick, long curls, which took so long every day to brush and put them in order…they were like ringlets down her back. Randy was the icing on the cake for Mom and Pop. The surprise that kept them young! And oh, how Mom and Pop loved and doted on him. With Randy, gone was the story, “Oh we don’t have the money for that.” Lets just say he was pampered, which of course we all see the effects of today.

Her brother, Junior, was her best friend. Outside of family, her best friend since she was a teenager was Maggie. As young girls, they met at work at the Pulp Mill in Brunswick. At that time, she was known as Margaret. But Mom gave her the nickname Maggie. Up until last week, they still talked on the phone every week. Their last conversation was an hour. Maggie couldn’t be here today; but I’m sure she has some wonderful stories.

Mom overcame two different cancers in her life—breast cancer and lymphoma—and she lost the man she had lived with and adored for 61 years. 

I don’t know if you know Gustav Klimt’s painting The Kiss. If you don’t, check it out. But there’s this photo of Mom and her husband that’s like that painting. Mom is leaning back into the embrace of her husband. Totally comfortable. Totally known. With the biggest smile on her face.

I don’t know how old she was in that picture, but know ever knew how old she was. She never shared her age. Ever. Even to the end. It’s not in her obituary. Plus, she always looked younger than her years. She and Pop used to show us slideshows on a projector of nearly every vacation they ever took. One time, after seeing a picture of Mom on vacation in her younger years, Matt commented, “You look better now than you did then!” Mom got up from where she was sitting, crawled down on the floor next to Matt, and kissed him. 

When her daughter Lin passed away a little over a month ago, she cried so hard, and she grew so sad. And I believe thanks to God they’re together again today.

But I want to go back to this 21 year old Mom near the end of World War II...maybe the only time we know how old she was. Before she died, Mom chose the photo for her obituary. And she chose a photo of herself from that same year, when she was 21. 

Juanita Helmey .jpg


Volunteering for the Civil Air Patrol.



What kind of a woman in 1944, 21 and single, signs up for this? 


Thank God for Nita Helmey. 

We love you, Mom.