When Laura VanPelt mulled who might serve as flower girl in her wedding of last weekend, it didn’t take long to decide.
But she didn’t settle on the quintessential tiny tyke swathed in a mess of oversized curls and layers of fluff.
She picked grandma, who turns 95 in November.
Unconventional, yes. You do that, though, when you have a heart as big as Laura’s, a gal I’ve known since she was a pre-teen. And the choice is even easier when that grandmother is not only matriarch, but role model, mentor and the best dang cake baker this side of Alma.
Still, it came as something of a surprise to some guests watching as the wedding procession wended its way last Saturday afternoon along a grassy knoll that terminated at a foursome of huge trees framing the Rogue River, just outside Laura’s parents’ home near Rockford.
After a host of bridesmaids and groomsmen, there she was, Helen Kavanagh, resplendent in a dress and accouterments that Laura herself went with her grandmother to pick out.
It was last Christmas when Laura informed her grandmother that she’d decided on a flower girl, and wondered if she’d kindly oblige.
“When she asked me, I just laughed,” Helen recalled. “I thought she was kidding, of course.
“But then she said ‘No, grandma, I’m not. I want you to be my flower girl.”
And Helen Catherine Kavanagh, as you might suspect, just melted.
Though Helen’s role took but a half hour, she brought a long lifetime of memories to the outdoor altar, reflected in a rich tapestry that now includes 11 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and one on the way.
She was born one of 12 kids, then went on to have nine of her own with husband Lawrence, who died of cancer nearly 30 years ago.
They lived in Carson City and then Lansing, but eventually moved to Williamston, where all the Kavanagh kids were educated.
It’s not been all roses; the Kavanaghs’ eldest son died at 11, after being struck by a car while riding his bicycle.
“A tragedy,” says Helen.
Lawrence was a partner in a Ford dealership in Carson City for 15 years, but at age 55 went back to school to learn the insurance industry, which he immersed himself in for a decade before retiring.
Helen held down a busy fort, but somehow found time to distinguish herself as a cake baker and decorator.
“It was awful keeping the kids out of the frosting.”
When she succeeded, though, her pastry emerged as works of art. Her two proudest culinary moments were making a cake to satisfy 350, and creating a masterpiece for her mother’s 80th birthday party. The icing beheld the entire family tree, every name right there on all the sweetly swirled branches.
For the wedding that joined granddaughter Laura to new husband Austin Kuipers, Helen made some 200 truffles and several pans of dessert bars.
These days, Helen makes her way in Lansing, where she’s so busy at 94 that “I never take a nap.”
Instead, “I find a lot of things to do,” which includes long hours playing euchre with a gang of other oldsters that includes two sisters and a brother. “The last time we were together,” she says, “I went all around the table counting the years represented, and it was 537.”
When she’s not cutting cards, Helen takes string and beads and creates untold number of rosaries for Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in the Capitol City, where she’s been a parishioner for more than two decades.
You’ll likely find her watching a Tigers game at the same time, and FYI, she was sorry to see “Oh, now what’s-his-name” (Austin Jackson) traded for pitcher David Price, and thinks the Bengals’ chances of post-season play are “kind of shaky” unless they can start hitting more consistently.
Speaking of shaky, Helen was anything but as she made her way as flower girl, a lace-covered cane in one hand at the urging of her kids. In the other, she carried a basket, from which she cast petals with both grace and aplomb, smiling and laughing as she went.
“When I tell people I was the flower girl, it’s quite a surprise,” she said, and has even had some doubt her story.
For her, though, it’s a memory she can almost feel, a moment she considers “the biggest thrill I’ve ever had I think.”
Which, I believe, is a lesson for us all. After all, who’s likely to better embrace what it means to toss flowers along an aisle – a bewildered tot of 3, or a loving woman who clasped her hands in awe when you came into the world, whose entire life’s garden has always been for you?
(Posts by Tom Rademacher)