By K. Woodzick
My Great-Aunt Helen was a pistol. That’s the best way to describe her. She was a transport sergeant in the Marines, and when I attended her funeral in 2010, the priest told the congregation that it was the first time he had performed military honors for a woman.
Helen grew up as part of a large Polish Catholic family in Hazelhurst. She was born in 1912 and named Helen Catherine Woodzick. Many of her six brothers and two sisters stayed in Northwoods as well.
She had two husbands, both of whom were named Wally. She met her second husband while singing the national anthem at a snowshoe baseball game in Lake Tomahawk.
I met Helen only a half a dozen times in my life. My favorite memory is visiting her at the nursing home, playing Christmas carols on the piano and singing with her to the other residents.
Let it be known that Helen never really cared for that nursing home, and planned an escape the following Easter. She knew which exit wouldn’t be heavily watched during the festivities and hightailed it out of there with her walker. State troopers picked her up just as she was about to get to the county highway.
My parents help to take care of Helen in her final years. While she was still at her home, a bear walked through her house and ransacked her many bird feeders. My father named him Roberto, and sent her postcards penned by that mischievous bear for several months.
When Helen passed away, I flew in from Washington state to sing at the service. My family is comprised of introverts and I was also asked to give the eulogy. I felt a connection to her, as we were arguably the only two performers ever to emerge from the Woodzick family.
After the service, we went to the cemetery where Helen’s several siblings were buried. A 21-gun salute honored her service, and my father shared that he and his sister, Jean, would often walk the cemetery as kids and pick up the bullet casings from these salutes. A folded flag was also offered to our family, and when no one else indicated interest, I said that I would like to take it home.
Her flag has traveled with me from Washington to Colorado and now back home to the Northwoods. It serves as a daily reminder of Helen’s legacy, service and 98 years on this planet. I’m honored to be a part of her family.
Did you ever hear Helen sing the national anthem at a snowshoe baseball game? Or cross paths with her at the Northland Historical Society or a Friday night fish fry? Let us know at email@example.com.
A different version of this piece appeared on the Naropa University Blog in 2017.
K. Woodzick is a life-long theatre artist and has over a decade of experience as a non-profit marketing professional and writer. They live in Woodruff with their silver lab, River.