By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer
Jim Spencer described an “Ozzie and Harriet” lifestyle with Helen Spencer as his mother. Younger sister Lisa Spencer said Helen and her sister Hazel were like the “Lucy and Ethel” of the neighborhood and Helen was like Martha Stewart in the home.
Regardless of the time frame or show involved, Helen Spencer’s three children said the girl of a Clovis homesteading family was a topnotch parent and friend who maintained her sense of humor throughout her life.
“When you’re teenagers, you don’t want to listen to your parents because they don’t know as much as you do,” said Philip Spencer, a retired airline pilot in Connecticut. “When (I) went to school, our relationship transitioned … to more of a friendship. I went off into the Army and realized they were good friends.”
Helen Spencer died March 2 at Plains Regional Medical Center at the age of 89. She was born May 19, 1917, in Matador, Texas, and came to Clovis when her family homesteaded.
Whether her children ended up across the country or across the city, Helen would be there for support.
“Some moms could have been a little pushy trying to get their kid to date or join this club or do this activity,” said Jim Spencer, who runs an engineering company in Virginia and is planning a move to Texas. “She let us do our thing. If we made a mistake, she’d point out that it was a mistake, but she’d let you do it. She’d try to let you learn from it.”
Learning was a lifelong experience in Helen’s eyes, her children said. She graduated from Hardin-Simmons University in 1939. She used that education whether working in the Clovis Credit Bureau or cooking nutritious family meals. Philip said he remembered great meals all the time, such as salmon croquettes and chicken enchiladas.
“She was the Martha Stewart of her time,” Lisa Spencer said. “She was a stay-at-home mom. She didn’t work outside the home. Her degree was in home economics and science, and everything revolved around good nutrition and meals.”
Lisa Spencer said life was much different for her than her brothers, because she was born when her mother was 38, her father, Bob, was entrenched in Clovis and the Chamber of Commerce, and her brothers were nearly grown. As a result, she said, she never remembered tough financial times and her parents were much more easygoing raising her than with her brothers.
Not that her sons complained. Jim Spencer said their house was always the hangout for high school friends, because his mother was a great entertainer who his friends found attractive. Philip Spencer said his friends felt the same way, but he joked the Helen Spencer who entertained friends was the same Helen Spencer who cut the heads off live chickens in preparation for an evening meal.
Whether it was preparing her family a meal or preparing her family for life, Helen’s children said she would provide them with whatever they needed. After Lisa Spencer got divorced, her mother was insistent she would help Lisa with her children or anything else she needed so she could get an education. Though standards had changed over the decades, Helen’s insistence on education did not.
“She came from a home where education was a necessity,” Lisa Spencer said. “In the early ’30s, women might go to college for one year, but then they’d probably find a husband. She knew I had to have that degree in order to live comfortably and live in the lifestyle she knew I wanted to live in.”
Lisa Spencer got an associate’s degree from Clovis Community College and a bachelor’s degree from Eastern New Mexico University. She said she’s never felt like she’s done enough to show her gratitude – not even when she took her mother to live with her in Albuquerque when her health failed, or when she brought her back to Clovis and hired home health care so she could continue to live in her beloved home on Axtell Street.
Helen Spencer’s final years didn’t strike her children as envious. She suffered from dementia, and her condition got so bad Lisa eventually decided to move her into a living care facility. Throughout it all, she kept a Seinfeld-esque sense of humor, even if what she was saying didn’t make complete sense to everybody around her.
“She kept that humor all the way through,” Jim Spencer said. “Even when she got dementia — and, I don’t think, had much of a life — she was always gracious and full of humor. There were always jokes being cracked.”