PALM HARBOR — Helen Swierkos drank eight glasses of water a day, because her doctor said it was good — she even marked them off on a tally sheet to be sure. She ate right, even with a weakness for sweets.
She was a prim, proper, devout Catholic. She was so shy that she wouldn't ask neighbors to collect her newspapers if she went out of town — but she'd always collect theirs.
Life was this way ever since her older sister accidentally drowned. Mrs. Swierkos was 15 then. Her mother, a Lithuanian immigrant whose husband had also died, overprotected her daughter. When her girlfriends took a trip to Italy, she wasn't allowed to go. She lived at home until her mother's death at age 86.
She didn't get married until she was 50. She had no children. She never got to spread her wings.
But she had nine nieces and nephews who did.
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They put her obituary in the newspaper.
SWIERKOS, Helen T., 91, of Palm Harbor, died at home April 7, 2008. "Our Dear Aunt," these words express how her nieces and nephews felt about their Auntie Helen. She was involved in our childhood years, bringing us shopping, sleep overs, going to our sporting events and helping us financially.
She enjoyed their every move. She wasn't one for dirty jokes, but if the kids slung one, she'd chuckle along. She watched them laugh, eat junk food, have a drink now and then. When her nephews played in football games, she wore the team colors, cheered them on and saved all the newspaper clippings.
One time, she made a confession to her niece, Penny McQuaig: "I wish I was you."
"She was living her life through us," said McQuaig, 63.
Still, she found her own ways to enjoy life. She took senior bus trips to casinos. She was transfixed by video poker machines. She never won big, but she refused to leave the machine if it was "hot." One time, her niece found her sipping a 99-cent strawberry margarita at a slot machine at 10 a.m.
Seventeen years ago, she moved next door to McQuaig in Palm Harbor. Their homes were separated only by a little pathway. Mrs. Swierkos volunteered at the hospital and knitted blankets for charity. She trimmed her own palm trees, cut her own grass, went antique shopping.
She suffered from pulmonary disease, asthma and colon cancer. Her nieces and nephews surrounded her, visiting and watching football games on TV. Her nurses and neighbors, too, called her "auntie." Eventually, her mind started to fog.
And finally then, she started cracking jokes.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.