Miss Helen Boykin

I have been interviewing people for as long as I can remember.  I found this piece as I was going through some old papers tonight.  The subject of this interview is Miss Helen Boykin, my neighbor when I was in college.  She lived next door to my family home.  She was an elegant southern lady and I just wanted to be around her and ask her about her life.  She fascinated me as many people do.  I don’t think I realized at the time what an erudite and talented lady she was.  I am grateful that she took the time to chat with me back in the mid-1980’s.  


Photographs, art, and sheet music adorn her music studio. The robust woman of 78 excitedly led me around her home showing me mementos she has collected over the years. Miss Helen Boykin, teacher and composer of music talked with me about her life and her music.

Miss B, as her students call her, “arises each morning at 10 of 5,” she says in her aristocratic southern accent. “I’m busy, busy.” “I begin teaching at 6:30 a.m. because I have many students in high school or who work and they have to leave my house by 7:30 a.m.” I have lived next door to Miss Boykin and her 87-year-old sister for four years. When I want a history lesson, I go next door.

Antiques fill the house, and Miss Boykin explains each piece to me. “This sewing stand came from the old family home on South Lawrence Street.” A faded gray picture was among the photos in the room. It was a man. She saw me staring at the photo, and she explained to me, “That was my fiance’. We were engaged to be married in 1940. He was an architect, and the government sent him to Savannah in 1940 to enlarge the airport. While he was away he found out he had cancer; then he returned to Atlanta where we both lived. He died a week later. His name was Harold C. McLaughlin.” Miss Boykin never married. She filled her life with music.

“Let me tell you a story about my first experience with composing. My mother could sing and play the piano; mostly she was a singer. I caught on to playing the piano. I was just a toddler, a little thing, and each morning my father would put me up on the piano stool. Then, he would go and shave. I would make up little tunes and play them. I played by ear, you see. My father would call to me to play ‘Morning.’ He named my little tunes. My father was superintendent of Lumber in the country, so I didn’t have my first formal lesson until I was in the 5th grade. It was so much easier to learn since I played by ear.” As she reminisced about her childhood and her first experience with music, I saw a twinkle in her brown eyes.

“I graduated from Montevallo High School. I spent my last year of high school in the dorm of Alabama College for Women, which is now the University of Montevallo. I graduated from the University of Montevallo in the Spring of 1927 with a Bachelor of Music. I was going to wait until the fall of 1927 to begin teaching, but the head of the Piano Department told me he wanted me to begin teaching at Montevallo that very summer. My first-day teaching, in front of me, sat teachers who were there to renew their certificates. I was freshly graduated, and I had to teach women with hair as gray as mine is now!” Miss Boykin touched her powder white hair as she shared this memory with me. I believe she was thinking of her honey brown hair of her younger days. She continued, “Yes, but those older teachers didn’t bother me. I worked their socks off!” She laughs admitting, “They were there to be challenged, and I challenged them. Maybe I did work harder because of their age and experience.”

She jumped up, “Oh, let me show you my cabinets I had made for my music sheets.” As we walked into the studio, she began to tell me about the photos around the room. “These twins were my students. Oh, this young man is now a professor in Troy, New York.” I asked her if she kept in touch with her students. “Oh, I receive many cards from my students.” She never says former students; they will always be her students.

“I studied at Yale for two summers, 1952 and 1953. I was at the Music Club of Montgomery, and a lady played the piano. We found out we had studied together at Yale. It was Marion Kent; I have taught her and her children. I taught in Atlanta; this was when I began composing. I was in bed, and a tune was pounding in my head. I jumped out of bed and played it on the piano; then I wrote it down. ‘Chit Chat’ was my first published piece. Some of my music was out of print for a while, but I received a call the other day from David Glover telling me a number of my compositions are now in print again. Mary’s House of Music carries many of them.”

She then began to tell me of her travels to New York when she visited her publisher. “When I left my publisher, which was outside of New York City, I would take the subway to Grand Central Station and wait for a bus to take me to my hotel. If the bus were even a little late, I would walk to my hotel. This was about 9:30 p.m. Who would do that today?” She laughed.

Miss Boykin moved to her house on Carter Hill Road with her sister because the A & P is nearby and they can walk to it. After selling her family home on South Lawrence Street, she moved in with her sister on Montezuma Road in Cloverdale until the grocery closed there. “The nearest grocery was Normandale, and that’s too far. I didn’t plan to take a taxi-cab every time I needed to go to the store.”

I asked Miss Boykin what she thought of today’s music which is composed of electronic synthesizer and machines which disguise the voice and if she ever taught contemporary music. “I have heard of some of the popular music on Sister’s television. I can say they have rhythm, and you can’t beat good rhythm, but I have never taught the popular music. I teach classics, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, the Old Masters. Once when I was teaching in Atlanta, a student of mine told me she wanted to study the popular music and she asked if I would teach her the music. I would not, so she decided to study the popular music for one year, and I was to fill her place with another student that year. It wasn’t two weeks into the summer when she called me and said, ‘Miss B, please save my place; I am quitting this popular music.’ She came back to me and studied the classics.”

We then exited the music studio. “You see the keepsakes my students give to me. They name each gift after a composer. I place them on my shelves and never move anything, or my students would be upset. They speak to the composers when they come for their lesson.” Among these keepsakes were plaques of honor and appreciation for Miss Boykin. She is in the Who’s Who of Women in Alabama and was also recently selected as Who’s Who in American Women. Miss Boykin has lived a life of fulfillment and success which has been passed on to many who are lucky enough to be in her path.

It’s May 20th, Again

May 20th, 2017

2:10 p.m. EST

I was going to let it go today.  I wasn’t going to be public or discuss with anyone about today’s date, May 20th, and its significance to me.  I thought I needed to let today be just another day in May.  I wondered why in the past I had felt the desire to say it aloud, to write it down and share it publicly.  I had dialogue with myself about this.  I told myself just remember May 20th, 2003 at 11:10 a.m. and let it be your memory.  My sister and I always send a simple text, “I love you” on May 20th each year.  We know this date is always hard. 

This morning my daughter and I went to breakfast, and we were talking about life. Somehow death became the bookend of our conversation.  Maybe subconsciously I wanted to talk to her about today, to share my memory.  So, I told her that in an hour 11:10 a.m. Central Standard Time would be the exact time Memommy died 14 years ago today.  My mother, her Memommy.  She began to ask me questions about that day.  She didn’t know that I had watched my mother die.  I have never discussed it with her.  I have only repeated the entire experience one time.  The week after my mother died I gave a friend of mine a detailed account.  The experience of watching my mother die. 

My daughter’s question was, “Did they take Memommy off the machine and then she died?” 

No, there was no machine.  My mother died at home surrounded by her mother (my Nana), my daddy, my sister, four of her sisters (one sister and her brother did not arrive in time), my daddy’s sister, and me.  I was there. 

I always felt that her death was hers.  I didn’t want to discuss something so private.  The memory I usually share is that it is the most beautiful experience to watch someone die and yet, it is the most gut-wrenching experience.  It is a paradox.  A contradiction.  The incongruity of begging someone to stay and then, letting that person go by assuring them that we will all be ok.  The ones left behind.  The living. 

I just remember watching her pain and wanting it to go away.  To stop.  I wanted her damn pain to stop.  I wanted my beautiful young 59-year-old mother to sit up and be ok.  To laugh. To boss me around.  To tell me what to do.  But, she didn’t.  She just cried out in pain.  So, there in my parent’s bedroom the hospice nurse continued to administer medication to my mother to ease her pain. 

I remember my mother’s face looking at my daddy.  He told her, “It’s ok, baby.  It’s ok.  You can go.  We will all be ok.  I will take care of Cookie and Karla. And, I will be ok. We are all here, and we will all be ok.”  Her mother, my Nana, comforted her and told her she loved her.  We all told her we loved her and that it was ok.  I didn’t really mean it.  I was only 40 years old.  My sister was only 33.  Our children were young.  Too young not to have her, their Memommy.  Our mother.  It wasn’t ok, but I knew that her pain was worse than death.  So, then, it was ok.  My mother, always the pleaser, had all of our permission to go.  To die.  She did just that on May 20th, 2003 at 11:10 a.m.