No cake I’ve ever had or will ever have can compare to the birthday cakes my Grandma Helen made.
These were delicacies baked in a Dickinson kitchen that could have brought top dollar in France. They were moist, fluffy concoctions that melted in your mouth and featured frosting that was always perfect — not too sugary and just the right amount of creamy. Every once in a while, they even featured elaborate designs.
On Friday, we said goodbye to our baker. Grandma Helen, my mom’s mother and a one-of-a-kind woman who showed her love for family and mental toughness to the very end, passed away at age 93.
Like most people, Helen Gabbert was not a person who made headlines or built empires. She was an old-fashioned wife and mother who buried three husbands and, later in life, became an independent woman who could fend for herself and, at times, scraped by on nothing but her stubbornness.
If you’ve lived in Dickinson long enough, there’s a good chance Grandma Helen greeted you with a smile and, in all likelihood, a yellow sticker. Though she worked many jobs over the years, I best remember her time as a people greeter at the old Walmart. During Christmas, you may also recall her stints there as Mrs. Claus — a role she was born to play, thanks to her curly white hair and love for the holidays.
But that was more than a decade ago. At 93, she had lost most of her sight, was wheelchair bound and no longer had the strength to fight off the virus that had sent her to the hospital last Sunday.
As I walked into her hospital room around noon Friday, I saw my mom crying, doing her best to force a smile and holding Grandma Helen’s hand. I had dropped what I was doing at The Press and had rushed over minutes earlier after receiving my mom’s text message saying Grandma had been taken off of oxygen — all that had kept her breathing throughout the week — and that it was only a matter of time.
Mom had told her that if the doctors took the oxygen away, she would be spending Christmas in Heaven with Jesus and Grandpa Archie, her first husband and my mom’s father, who died from leukemia in 1973. Asked if that was what she wanted, Grandma Helen gave a clear and resounding, “Yes.”
For the next 10 minutes, I held my mom’s hand in one hand and my Grandma’s in another as she took her final breaths and my mom spoke about her life. She recalled the doll outfits Grandma had sewn for her as a girl, her love and experiences at the various jobs she’d held in her lengthy working career — especially her time at Walmart, where she worked well into her 80s — the many broken bones she’d endured and, of course, her sought-after skills as a baker of cakes.
In those final minutes, as Grandma Helen prepared to meet God and once again see so many family members she had to say goodbye to over the years, I found a sense of peace in the strength my own mother showed on one of the most difficult days of her life. She knew that while it was time to say goodbye, it would not be forever. We will see Grandma Helen again.
And I’m certain, just like in life, she will be there in Heaven to greet us a smile, and she’ll be holding the most beautiful, delicious cake we’ve ever seen.