I’ve learned over the years not to underappreciate the women in my life. I’ve been blessed with an incredible mother who has been the strongest role model for me and my siblings. She epitomizes strength, reliability, and love. My sister is also strong and has an amazingly compassionate heart and recognizes the value of friends and true friendships. And there are so many other women who have touched my life, either in brief, unforgettable moments or through lasting, inspiring years, and all have made me who I am.
Recently, I was reminded of just how significant these relationships can be to a life journey. Her name is Helen Knudtson. Most people don’t know the name, never knew the woman, but to those of us who were touched by the light of Helen, our lives are different, better for it.
I met Helen when I was 23 years old. While I may have appeared to be confident, having just moved back to my hometown of Wichita after four years in Illinois, I was struggling. I was confused, a little lost, not knowing or understanding my path. I’d turned down a scholarship to Loyola University-Chicago to find a “real life” in Illinois only to return to Wichita feeling like a failure. I had the reliance of my incredible younger brother, his close friends who took me in as a second sister, my cousins who welcomed me home, and parents who offered me their hands to hold me up, still believing I was yet to blossom. But, I remained wobbly on my feet, like a toddler grasping for the edge of a sofa or outstretched arms.
I had been working for The Limited in east Wichita and was transferred to the west location to work alongside manager, Jennie Burress. Jennie also touched my life in so many ways through her love of music, her eclectic circle of friends, and her love of the town I once thought I despised. And through Jennie, I met Helen. Helen worked at The Limited a few mornings a week, not because she needed to, but because she wanted. Helen loved people and loved clothes. It was a fit made in fashion heaven.
But, Helen was more than her passion for accessorizing and conversations with strangers. She was a light. I’d never met anyone like her and I was spellbound. I looked forward to the mornings we opened the store, together. We’d arrive at 9:00, unlock the gate, prepare the cash drawer, read any faxes for the daily sales, and walk over to Swiss Colony. We would be greeted by Andre who would leave the gate halfway up for the employees of the mall who needed caffeine or pastries to begin their day in “retail hell.” I would order a large coffee and a blueberry muffin, Helen a medium tea or just a hot water with lemon. As we walked back to the store, we would talk about classical music or the latest Limited mix tape or question where the clothing trend was headed. Helen would tell me about an art piece she had seen, describing its color or texture. She would slowly dip her tea bag in the Styrofoam cup of hot water, nodding her head at me as I worried aloud whether I should’ve taken the scholarship, if I could stand working in retail the rest of my life, or we’d laugh as I retold the events of the past evening at The Embers with my brother and adopted brothers. She would listen. My heart would soar.
Many mornings we spent laughing as her group of wonderfully crazy girlfriends would arrive at the store, taking turns in the dressing rooms, Helen swinging bright-colored blouses over the white wood doors, exclaiming, “Oh, try this one. It’s so vivid.” I envied her relationships. They were the Ya-Ya Sisterhood before there was a book or movie, their circle forged through neighborhoodship and churchship. Together, they’d raised children, supported successful spouses, and raised a little hell on the side. After a morning of slinging accessories over and under dressing room doors and laughing until I thought I might pee my pants (someone actually did pee their pants in the dressing room, but that’s a story to remain in the legends of The Limited), I swore I would find my own sisterhood. I aspired to be like Helen.
Helen’s husband was a dentist who owned a private practice. When his receptionist gave notice, Helen waited until one of our mornings to tell me about the opening and to tell me she wanted me to apply for the position. I was surprised. First, I’d never been a receptionist, knew nothing of what that would entail and second, knew nothing about dentistry except I had my teeth cleaned every six months. To Helen, none of that mattered. She told me I needed to apply because I’d be perfect. It must’ve been obvious on my face; I thought she was wrong, completely. She placed her hand over mine, looked at me and said, “Nat, you can do it. You can do anything. You have so much to offer, you’re smart, and you’re personable. I know you can do anything you set your mind and heart to. I know it.”
Helen believed in me. The woman I admired, the woman whom I’d set upon a leopard print pedestal, felt I could do anything. Those simple words, that simple sentence, changed my path in 1992. If Helen Knudtson thought I could make a job change, then I would prove her right. I told her I’d give it a shot. “Good,” was all she’d said. A day or two later, her husband, whom I’d met once at a Christmas gathering at Jennie’s apartment, called me and asked me to meet him at his office on Saturday morning. I did. He hired me after a one-hour conversation. I spent the next fourteen years with Dave and Helen. They treated me like family, supported my every move, encouraged me, and most importantly, continued to believe in me. And I continued to aspire to be like Helen, some day.
On January 25, 2014, Helen lost her four-year battle with ovarian cancer. My heart shattered into what seemed a million pieces. While we weren’t in touch as much since Dave retired in 2005 and I pursued a career at Wichita State , we kept tabs on one another, met for dinner on special occasions, comforted one another on the saddest of occasions when we lost Jennie, and she remained in my heart as an aspiration of the woman I wanted to become. In November of 2013, I was told her time was short, the cancer had spread, there was nothing more they could do. To my regret, I couldn’t see her, I couldn’t face her knowing her life was ending, so I sent her a letter via David. In that letter I shared those mornings from our Limited days, the incredible impact she had on my life and accredited her with my success and my journey. Dave gave it to her and she told a mutual friend how touched she was by my letter.
But, I regret not holding her hand and telling her how much she meant to me, how she changed my life. The week following her death, I spent my nights wondering how my life would’ve been had I not met Helen. She arrived at a very critical time in my young life. What if we never met, she never encouraged me, never believed in me, forced me to look long and hard at myself to see the good and the seedlings of what was to come. Where would I be? Who would I be? She altered my course, I know this, which makes it so hard to let her go.
The morning of her funeral Mass, I was given a sign of why I could let her go. The sign came through my student office assistant, a young woman who is wise beyond her college years, who is not only in touch with the depths of human emotion; she is able to see beyond societal expectations. She silently stepped into my office, sat in the chair across my desk and said, “Your heart is breaking and yet, this morning in our Friday staff meeting, you wouldn’t know it. You were Natalie. You were there for us. You are so much stronger than you know. Your Helen, well, she would be so proud of you.” She then stood and asked to hug me.
So, while I worry Helen didn’t know completely how much she meant to me, I realize I’ve kept a piece of Helen, her grandest piece. I promise to carry her torch high throughout my life. I will continue to love without judgment and love faithfully, especially my family, and will look for the best in all people, especially young women who are just beginning to search for or are longing to find their best. I will laugh every day, either shared laughter or alone in my car, and I’ll share the ups and downs with the women in my life, recognize when someone needs a little pick-me-up, be it a cup of coffee, a martini, or a pair of pink fuzzy slippers.
I’ll proudly sport oversized hoop earrings and a touch of animal print, because as was Helen’s motto, “Everyone needs a little leopard in their life.” Helen’s mark was apparent on many of us women at both the rosary and funeral, adorned in scarves, blouses, sweaters and eyeglasses of varying colors of leopard print. Helen’s grandson even donned a leopard print bow tie.
My promise is to live a life that would make Helen Cecilia Knudtson proud. As I type this, I can hear her laugher and the jangle of her bracelets, and I know she will be forever present in my life. She set me upon this path. Now, it’s up to me to lace up those leopard print combat boots and continue the journey.
A women’s worth may be immeasurable. But for Helen, it is apparent in the smiles, tears, and actions of those women she touched and changed in the very short span that is her life.
Thank you, sweet Helen. God bless and keep you.