Mary Gressmann had a little girl who was almost always by her side. I first took notice of her in church when I was giving one of my “talks,” as they were called, memorized over the week and delivered in Sunday’s Sacrament Meeting.
She was a cheerful child who clapped too loudly and constantly fidgeted in her seat. She wore her hair in neat long braids and always dressed in a red-and-white checkered dress that had a twirl factor – and twirl she did, up and down the aisles.
During one such sermon, I stumbled slightly, leaving dead air as I searched my 7-year-old brain for the words that should be coming next.
When I recovered, Mary’s Helen started clapping really loud, being noisy in church. Her mother scolded her for “not being reverent.”
You see, we children were taught you could run and jump and play and make all the noise you wanted, but when you came through the chapel doors, it was, “Shush! Be still!”
For some reason, I liked her restless spirit. I thought there was a lot going on inside her that no one was giving much attention to. I very much wanted to know what that was.
Mary Gressmann was quite old by a child’s standard, considering I thought my daddy was old at 40. I would imagine her to be in her 60s then. I never knew of a Mr. Gressmann. Mary did home-teaching for our church, and one evening, during a very cold winter, she stopped by to check in, bringing little Helen along with her.
Mary was chattering on in the living room while I was finishing up the dishes in the kitchen. I had a perfect view of them. My mother was nodding, seated on the horsehair sofa, and Mary was talking a mile a minute beside her as little Helen whirled nearby.
I caught her eye, and she smiled wide – a smile that revealed a couple of long twisted teeth and nothing more. She seemed to remember me from that Sunday when I forgot my lines.
Dishes finished, I bravely interrupted her mother and offered to look after little Helen while they continued. Permission granted, she leapt from the sofa and followed me into the kitchen, where she plopped herself alongside me on the trunk that held my mother’s vacuum cleaner. It was just wide enough for the both of us.
Once seated, she grabbed my head with both hands, which were quite large for a child, and forcefully pulled my forehead to hers. Whack!
It felt like two melons meeting a nutcracker! Our eyes met.
She stared intently, as if trying to get a read on me. A few seconds later, she pushed me back, and then …
She started a column of sound I had never heard before. It wasn’t a voice. It was more like a rush of wind coming from somewhere inside her that was itching to be heard through the mouth and gums and couple of snarled teeth.
“I can’t understand you,” I said. She tried again, a bit slower, mouthing words I could not hear.
“I don’t know what you are trying to say,” I said, and believe me, I wanted to. She seized my head in frustration and pressed her mouth tightly to my ear.
Between the tunnel of air and the movement of her lips, I thought I understood one word: birthday.
“Did you say birthday?” I asked. She nodded. “Is it your birthday?” She nodded again. “Happy birthday!”
Wow. You would have thought I had given her the world. She started to rock. Her head bobbing, she held me so tight in her too-strong arms that I thought I would lose the air I had inside my body.
Then she started to cry.
I had understood her. I had really listened. I held her closely, and we rocked together.
I felt so happy. So happy.
We were two children making a connection.
Mary called for little Helen as the meeting concluded, and we shared a final hug.
The grownup in me now knows that Helen wasn’t really a child. She was a child of the mind, living in a voiceless body that was probably older than my daddy was at the time.
She remained that way for the rest of her life, always innocent, always wanting to be heard, like I did. At least one time, she was.

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