An Interview with Helen
September 24, 2006
by Paul Moran
May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
And may the Lord hold you
In the hollow of His hand.
Another painting hanging in sight shows an old Irish farmhouse, built like a simple white box with almost windowless walls and a small, narrow door. Finally, there is a group photo of all her twenty-five grandchildren on the porch of her old house. The entire room is filled with an aura of comfort and familiarity. It's also spotless.
From the large windows, I can see out across the small valley next to the house. The valley, which extends for about half a mile, is covered with enormous oak trees, verdant shrubs, and the golden grasses so familiar to California in the late summer. The house is on the hill overlooking the valley, and the sides of the hill are supported by a twenty-foot wall made of stacked stone, made and rebuilt by her husband.
We sit down to talk.
My name is Helen Theresa Collins Moran. When I think about home, the first thing that comes to my mind is an old quotation: "Home is where the heart is." Your home is where you can go back to, where everyone will love you and accept you and make you comfortable, and are delighted to see you. They're interested in you, will help you. Certain things about the people I am with make me feel at home. It's usually the acceptance that I feel from the people that I'm around is the first thing that comes to my mind.
Now, when I think of my early childhood home, I think of being in charge, because I was. In the family that I grew up with, I was the oldest of five children. I had two brothers and two sisters. My mother worked in a restaurant in New York. Stouffer's restaurant, as a matter of fact. She cleaned the salads. My father could not support us and so my mother depended on me for an awful lot of help at home. She had to be at work at 12 o'clock, so before she left the house, she had cooked the dinner for the coming night. When I got home from school between half past three or four o'clock, I would warm it up in the oven and serve it to my brothers and sisters, and try to keep them in line because my mother expected me to keep them organized, and they were a rambunctious bunch. To this day they call me "the boss". Oh, my God! (Laughs.) My mother would be so happy to come home at night. She got home at night between nine and ten. All she would want to do was sit down and have a cup of tea or something like that. She worked very, very hard. There were no washing machines. You washed in the washtub with the board, the washboard.
My mother was very clean and tried very hard to keep a clean, tidy place—and in those days, all those apartment houses were infested with bedbugs. My mother's method of killing bedbugs was unbelievable. She would take the mattress off. These were springs, open springs that the mattress would rest on. She would take the mattress off the springs. She would put each leg of the bed in a big bucket and she would pour some flammable liquid over the bed springs and set fire to it to kill the bugs. (Laughs.) She burned the buggers out! (Laughs.)
We moved around a lot when I was growing up. Looking back on it now, I think it's because we just couldn't afford to pay rent. We moved out and started fresh at a new apartment and we'd be there a couple of months, I guess. But I lived eight years in that area, because that's where I went to grammar school during those years. The apartments were called railroad flats; one room led directly into another one. Our homes always were apartments. One that stands out in my mind is 143rd Street and Brook Avenue. A big, tall—about a five- or six-story building. All apartment buildings had names, and they were written in gold across the front door, the entry door, and that one was the La Tara. Right behind it was a silk factory. All day long you would hear the threads being woven into fabric, and it was a constant rolling, constant rolling. And I remember beautiful colors. You would see them through the windows.
When I think of my memories of home as a child, the first thing that comes to my mind was the walks I used to take from 143rd Street, where I lived, down to 138th Street, just walking down the avenue. It was to get away from home, really. Sometimes it was unpleasant, because of my father's alcoholism. I can see myself doing that. There was a lot of agitation, fighting, drunkenness. Just from my father's standpoint. I feel very sorry for him. Since I've grown up and experienced life myself, I feel very sorry for the man, but he made life very difficult for my mother and my brothers and sisters and myself.
The meals were the good parts of home, the food my mother prepared. In those apartments in those days they had coal stoves in the kitchen. There were four burners, four hatches, you might say, that you would lift up and you put coal into two of them and that would burn, and that would keep the stove hot and you would cook all your vegetables, everything, on top of the stove. My mother produced the most marvelous meals on that stove.
I grew up in an Irish ghetto. All of our friends were Irish Americans. There was a lot of drinking and a lot of carousing, and I didn't have any desire to drink and carouse. All of the children from the Irish immigrants went to Catholic school, where we got a very good, fine education. The example that was set for me, how important education was.
The one constant was my mother. Through all the apartments I know I used to look forward to being at home so I could dive into my bed and get under the covers and read. But the most constant aspect was the presence of my mother, even though she was working. Everything revolved around her. We all worked to please her and to have the house nice when she came home from work and to protect her, because she in turn protected us. Oh, I felt safe there, particularly when I was a young child. My mother was very good to us. In those days my father may not have been drinking as much. He was a funny guy. He was a very interesting kind of person: very bright, full of poetry, full of history.
My idea of home changed after I married. I realized what peace was. I felt very badly for my brothers and sisters when I left home to get married. It was one of the happiest, and one of the saddest days of my life, because I knew my mother was so dependent on me. I thought the whole shebang would collapse after I left, you know. But it didn't; it continued for about seven more years, until my father died. My mother had a peaceful life after that.
In the year that we got married, 1947, there was a huge, huge housing shortage in New York, where we lived, because there had been no building going on during the time of World War II. Mal and I came up with this brilliant idea one day. We thought of putting an ad in the paper saying "Engineer and bride for blah blah blah," and, by golly, didn't we get an answer! And we had the top floor of the prettiest house you'd ever want to see. It had been converted into an apartment. Teeny tiny little bedroom and living room and kitchen and bathroom, but we were enthralled with it, having been raised in the city. This was outside of the city, opposite a park. It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful! Van Cortland Park. To see greenery, to see trees. We just had Kevin, our first son, when we lived up there. We used to take him for a ride in the carriage, and Mal would take him off by himself on a Saturday and he would bring him to some vacant spot, and take off all his clothes and let him worship the sun. (Laughs.)
New housing started to be built. The big insurance companies like the Metropolitan Insurance Company invested in huge apartment buildings downtown, overlooking the East River. And we became eligible for one of those apartments, which was like a miracle. That was Stuyvesant Town, still in existence. Oh, it was unbelievable. My God, it was brand-new, up-to-date: elevators, tile in the bathroom, hardwood floors. It was wonderful. Wonderful. So we got one of those apartments: two bedrooms, a living room, a dining area, a modern kitchen—a brand-new apartment, and they were just lovely. And downtown, located, I think our address was 20th Street. And the living room window overlooked the East River. You could see the tugboats going up and down the river. And there was a big family involved in tugboats then—it was Moran! Moran tugboat family—and so the kids, when they got a bit older, they would say, "Is there one named for me?"
Then came 1950 and a recession under Eisenhower. Mal lost his job. It was very, very hard to find a job. The first thing that's hit in recessions is the engineers: there's no more building, so the engineers have to go. One of the jobs he considered taking was up in Alaska, and I—myself and the kids—couldn't go with him. And then my brother Michael happened to see an ad in the paper that Lockheed was in New York interviewing for aeronautical engineers, and that was Mal's specialty. He went to the interview, got the job, and they paid his way out to California. We were separated for about three or four months. And so that's how we moved to California.
It was lonely. The houses were lovely, but there was just Mal and myself and the two children. I felt very lonely. I missed my mother, I missed my sisters and brothers. We had no friends out here at all, at all, but we had each other, and we were close. And the kids were a lot of fun. And then, of course, the kids kept on coming, so we grew less lonely. (Laughs.)
Well, we were in Burbank for about 3 1/2 years, and then Mal was given an opportunity for promotion. But we had to move to Georgia for it. I didn't want to go to Georgia. I was scared stiff to go to Georgia, actually. That's how provincial I was—from the state of New York, having lived in California for however many years. Those were the days of the Jim Crow laws, in the early Fifties, and I've actually been on a bus, a public bus, riding from Marietta into Atlanta, and I've seen the Black women, who had worked all day long, having to go into the back of the bus. And if there wasn't a seat back there, they stood up. And I can't tell you how it hurt me, because I could picture my mother, my mother being one of those ladies who worked, you know. It just hurt me to see that. That was the custom in the South.
Then we moved back up to New York. He left Lockheed, went to work with Republic Aircraft, which, I was about to say, was a mistake. It was a career mistake, but he didn't know it at the time. At any rate, he lasted about 18 months back in New York. This was 1958, and we moved back to northern California, where the missile system facility was located. So we've been in Northern California ever since. I was very glad to leave New York the second time, and go back to California, even though my family was there. Because it hadn't turned out the way I had envisioned. They all had married and had made families of their own, and we didn't see each other as much, obviously, as when we were children or when I was first married.
Relatively speaking, I grew up in poverty. In what is now called "Fort Apache", in the Bronx. I've come a long way from the Bronx, and so has everybody else in my family, thanks be to God. I wind up here in Saratoga, with my big brood of family, and grandchildren, and whatnot, and feel as though I've come a very long way. And it was all because of my husband's position, actually. The fact that he was educated and could afford a very good living for us. So I feel as though I have been very privileged. But I am very glad I grew up when I did, where I did. I'm very glad I am where I am today.
Now, living alone for the first time, it's wonderful. I feel wonderful about it. I do miss my husband. The company, you miss your contemporary. But I feel so grateful I have this wonderful family. I always have somebody visiting me, somebody calling me up to see how I am. I'm very happy here. I feel very blessed. Very, very blessed. I'm living in a house that my husband built. It's a little cottage that he added on to the property 15 years ago. I feel very blessed to be here, surrounded by nature and beauty. And the beauty of my children and my grandchildren.
The other painting is of the house where he was born and brought up, in Ireland. That painting was done by a carpenter—not a painter, a carpenter. And every time I think I see it I think of—remember Grandma Moses? It's what they call primitive. Some people would look at it and say it's primitive. I just think, I love it because it's where he grew up. It formed him. He was happy as a lark there.
I wanted there to be a sense of peace in my home. A sense of welcome. I did not want fighting and rambunctiousness and stuff like that. Even though I had such a big family, when one of them would be missing—we always had dinner together every single night, the father, mother and the ten kids—when one of them would be missing from the table, let's say they'd gone out with one of their pals or something like that, the rhythm would be different. You'd just know it, someplace in your being, that the rhythm is different.
What home is: home is the center point. All my children, all my grandchildren—they all mean home to me because they're people that I love and who love me, and I feel extremely fortunate to have so many people who care for me. I feel very, very fortunate. I'm very proud of my children. All of my children turned out to be fantastic people. I'm very proud of that, you know.
I think we're all sent here for a purpose. If we are in a fortunate position, it's usually to help other people who are not in so fortunate a position. We know better than that. We know poverty when we see it, we know disease when we see it, and we have some kind of obligation to those people, I believe. You would think it'd be only natural, but not to a lot of other people. It's like they don't believe in that.
Yes, the primary ingredient are the people. Because home is the people. Home is the people that love you and that accept you. They respect you, and value you, and think you're the greatest thing since sliced bread, you know? That's the relationship between home and people.