Inspiring Woman and Mother: Phyllis Mae Hellmich

By Philip M. Hellmich

When asked which woman has inspired me the most in my life, the answer came easily: my mother, Phyllis Mae Hellmich.

The importance of my mother in shaping my life came home to me last week on April 22, 2016. I woke up to several text messages.

The first message was from my mother, who wrote, “I love you.” Several siblings in earlier times zones had responded, “I love you too.”

The next message was from my brother Trevor, “Want to let everyone know Mom is at the Greensburg ER with chest pain.”

I jumped out of bed and read the rest of the messages. Mom had had a heart attack and was being rushed to the Saint Vincent Heart Center in Indianapolis. I called my sister Sue who was trying to figure out how and when to fly home from Colorado. Sue said several of our siblings were on their way to Indianapolis and that Dad, our mother’s husband of 62 years, was crying. I simply cried and did what I knew to do: meditated and prayed.

As I meditated, I called on saints to bless and protect my parents, something I had done daily for decades. I then remembered Paramahansa Yogananda once said, “It is the Divine Mother who watches over us lifetime after lifetime as our mother in each life.”

I then reflected on the incredible life my parents have had together and the blessings that my divine mother has given my siblings and me.

My mother and father, Richard Hellmich, met in high school in Greensburg, Indiana and fell in love. My mother was a cheerleader with dreams of going to college, becoming a teacher and coaching athletics.

My parents married on September 11, 1954, at the age of 17, just at the start of their senior year in high school. A few months later, they gave birth to their first child, Richard Leo Hellmich II. Thus, my mother redirected her ambitions into co-creating a life with my father, one that would touch many people’s lives.

My mother often said about those early years, “We were young kids, it was all a big adventure.” Adventure, yes! And, not exactly easy. My parents finished high school by taking night classes. My father started work in a factory and my mother stayed home to raise a growing family and later to start a daycare service taking care of other children.

My parents were 24 years old when I was born as the fifth child. I was named after my mother and, as it would turn out, I was the only planned child - at least so they tell me. :>). At the age of 30, they had nine children and at 36, they had a surprise, my brother Michael, the tenth.

It was a different time in rural Indiana, as there were many large families. When asked if she was Catholic, my mother often responded, “Yes, no sense of rhythm.” My father would quickly add, “We love each other a lot, I can’t keep her off me.” They would both laugh and then kiss.

Growing up, my mother set the tone in the house. She kept all the children focused on their priorities at school and home -- academics, sports, mowing grass, etc…. From any place in the house, my mother could call out and have any of us by her side at a moment’s notice.

My mother often said, “I knew if you had clean clothes to wear and you did your homework, other kids would not laugh at you for being poor.” She also said, “There were times I did not know what we were going to eat.” My mother could stretch a pound of hamburger like Jesus with loaves of bread.

While we lived on very modest means, we were over-the-top rich in family love! My mother encouraged harmony, good manners and hard work. Through her and my father’s example, we became “the family.”

For the first several years of my life, we lived in a small house with seven boys in one room -- two bunk beds, a pull out bed and a crib. We later moved into the “big house” with only two children per room.

With my parents’ encouragement, my oldest siblings set an example in academic and athletic excellence, something the rest of us followed.

The biggest impact my mother and father had on us were the small, day-to-day ways of being that over time shaped each of us.

My parents seldom argued in front of us and always were affectionate with one another. To this day, they hold hands when in public.

My parents attended almost every sporting event of their children and later their grandchildren in the area (except when there were two games going on at the same time) -- football, cross country, basketball, soccer, track, tennis, etc…. My mother was and still is one of the loudest voices in the stands, often embarrassing us kids.

Whatever anyone in the family was doing-- science fair, school plays, sports, etc… -- my parents were there and they had all of us along with them. Thus, we learned about expressing love through mutual support.

My mother told each of us we could do anything we wanted to do in life, never giving up on any of us. When I was nearly flunking out of first grade, my parents offered me a new green stingray bicycle with a banana seat. I studied harder. Sure enough, I passed.

At Christmas, everyone gave and received gifts. On birthdays, my mother asked us to pick our favorite meal and cake, which she then made for each of us.

We had lots of pets, several cats and dogs, even a few fish, gerbils, mice and a turtle. My mother was the one that helped take care of them and she was the one who cried when they died.

Even though we lived in an all-white county, my parents, especially my mother, always encouraged tolerance. They did not allow racist jokes or foul language. My parents also set an example in pro-actively helping people less fortunate, such as shoveling snow, raking leaves or mowing the grass for elderly neighbors.

We all learned to work hard and to share what we had. We had an acre garden and froze or canned most of our own vegetables. We did it all together, as the family!

All of the kids had Indianapolis Star newspaper routes to help pay for school supplies and clothes. Several of us received Indianapolis Star scholarships for college. My mother was the one who would wake us up to deliver papers in the mornings -- between 4am and 6am every day for over 18 years! On Sundays, when the papers were bigger, or mornings when it was rainy or cold, my mother and father would drive us on the routes.

When my younger brother Michael was in high school, one of his close friends, Kyle, lost both of his parents, one to cancer and the other to a heart attack. Michael asked my parents if he could invite Kyle to move in with them to finish high school. My parents and Kyle said yes, and Kyle has become the 11th child of our family, attending every family event for over 25 years.

My parents’ influence has resulted in all 11 children graduating from college (scholarships, grants and loans) and several children went on to earn graduate degrees. There are now 22 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren, several of whom have graduated from high school and/or college.

More importantly, we are a tight-knit close family to this day. Every Christmas for the past 42 years, we have had a candle ceremony -- where each of us light a candle and affirm our love for one another. (When not together on Christmas, my mother calls each person to remind them to light a candle.) Every time a grandchild turns 13, we all gather to celebrate the rites of passage.

My mother’s ability to have so many people feel special is incredible. When I was in Peace Corps, my parents kept a candle lit the entire four years I was in West Africa until I came home.

My mother sends cards for every birthday and major holiday - Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. My mother, more than my father, has taken to social media and has mastered sending individual and group text messages. Every morning she sends updates and in the evening she sends good night messages. My mother has become the family ESPN as she keeps us up to date on all sports - professional, college, high school and elementary school. It is common for my mother to refer to her grandchildren's soccer games and the Indianapolis Colts football team in the same text message.

In addition to her immediate family, my mother has numerous cousins, nieces and nephews, along with kids which she has babysat for over the years, feeling like each and every one of them is special. Plus, there is the local fire department where my mother takes baked goods on holidays.

This past April 22, when my mother realized she was having a heart attack, she told her husband and lifelong companion she needed to go to the emergency room. As my father woke my brother to drive them to the hospital, my mother took an aspirin, made the bed, fed the cats and then cried in my father’s arms, “I don’t want to die yet.”

She then sent the text message to her children, “I love you.”

The extended family and network of friends immediately mobilized to help my mother. Even the hospital ER team that cared for my mother had people on it who grew up knowing my mother. One young nurse in the ER was a longtime friend of the family. She was getting off duty and volunteered to go in the ambulance to keep my mother company. Of course, my mother encouraged her to go home to be with her family.

When my mother came out of surgery in Indianapolis, she was surrounded by my father, three sons, a daughter, two sisters, several grandchildren -- some of whom had driven 3 and 4 hours to be there.

My mother, knowing others were on the way, asked for the second wave of children and grandchildren to wait on coming home, insisting that she was going to be okay.

When I talked with my Mom, she said, “I have to live, I have two high school graduations coming up,” referring to two granddaughters.

Surrounded by an abundance of love, my mother is now enjoying her favorite pastimes -- reading books and weaving together a family by sharing meals, telling stories, sending text messages and cards, etc….. Soon she will be going to sporting events and graduation ceremonies.

This Mother’s Day will be extra special, as my family and I celebrate the most inspiring woman in our lives, our life teacher and coach, Phyllis Mae Hellmich.

Philip M. Hellmich is Director of Peace at The Shift Network, director of The Summer of Peace and lead designer of the World Peace Library. Philip has dedicated most of his life to global and local peacebuilding initiatives, including 14 years with Search for Common Ground. He also served for four years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone where he lived and worked in small remote bush villages. A published writer, Philip is author of God and Conflict: A Search for Peace in a Time of Crisis with a Foreword by Lama Surya Das. He serves as adviser to The Global Peace Initiative of Women. A long-time meditation practitioner, Philip enjoys studying and teaching about the parallels between inner and outer peace.

Philip is also the fifth and only planned child of eleven children and was named after his mother, Phyllis Mae Hellmich.


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This article appears in: 2016 Catalyst, Issue 8: Inspiring Women