Remembering Helen (Hellcat) Lamb is like remembering a comet. Something fiery and awe-inspiring, hardly comprehensible to the average person — and even in Hellcat’s case of 97 years — fleeting.
At a memorial service for Mrs. Lamb, the founder of Camp Jabberwocky, last Thursday afternoon in the Tabernacle, friends and family traveled from afar to share stories about growing up under Mrs. Lamb’s influence. All the stories alluded to Mrs. Lamb’s unmatched spunk, energy and commitment to a cause she believed in, not to mention her terrifying power to persuade.
But the eulogies delivered by family members, friends and past campers and counselors also told another story, the one about a young British woman who made herself into an Island superstar, and the legend that continues after her death.
Before there was Helen Lamb, there was Nellie Southworth, born in Lancashire, England, in 1914. Several speakers shared snippets of stories of the atypical British child and teenager, but the real story started when Nellie turned 21.
“I had the unexpected pleasure of being with [Mrs. Lamb] on the day she eloped,” began Ken Davies, Hellcat’s nephew. They rode the morning bus together, and Hellcat gave her nephew a kiss on the forehead before he got off at school. Mr. Davies said he should have known something strange was in the works, but the innocent child went about his day in an ordinary fashion, even when Aunt Nellie missed dinner and the night grew late.
A knock finally came at the door and Nellie’s mom answered.
“Then all hell broke loose,” said Mr. Davies. It was John Lamb, who had come to present the news of his marriage to Nellie Southworth, who forevermore proudly wore his surname.
“I never did get to meet John,” continued Mr. Davies, “But I’ve always felt that I witnessed a very important piece of family history that night.”
Eloping was first on a very long list of wild endeavors that Hellcat pursued, without the need for much help or support. Many speakers told stories about the founding of Camp Jabberwocky in 1953. It’s a story many know — Mrs. Lamb (who had by now changed her name to Helen) brought campers to the Vineyard, and with virtually no money and the help of only a handful, gave them a grand vacation in the sun and around town.
Longtime camper Paul Remy wrote a eulogy, delivered by his first Jabberwocky counselor.
“When I first met her at the age of two, she was demanding during my speech therapy lessons. I’d wished I had never met that nonsense British woman,” he began.
But Mr. Remy’s opinion quickly changed. “Mrs. Lamb introduced me to fun and craziness at Camp Jabberwocky, as well as endless possibilities, despite my disability. She also encouraged me to attend Southeastern Massachusetts University, when my parents and many of my friends did not think that it could happen for me.” Mr. Remy has since had a successful writing career and is a member of a Sharing Commission for Disabilities.
“Mrs. Lamb’s sternness and guidance opened doors for me toward a fulfilling and rewarding life. I miss her so much, but part of her will always live within me.”
Some in the audience were moved to tears. But others took a different approach to commemorating Mrs. Lamb’s influence in their lives.
“Meeting Helen Lamb at an impressionable age actually messed up my life,” declared Deanne Bonnar, a retired Jabberwocky counselor. “I wanted to have the qualities that I admired in her. I had to learn painfully over quite a long time that imitating qualities is not the same as having them.”
The audience roared in laughter as Ms. Bonnar recalled examples, like Mrs. Lamb’s habits of ripping up bills and tossing the pieces aside, which stupefied the teenage counselor.
“She would routinely look at me and say, ‘Deanne, don’t worry, they’ll send me another bill next month,’ ” said. Ms. Bonnar. “I loved her cavalier attitude toward money. I decided that I would do the same thing.”
Of course this didn’t quite work out for Ms. Bonnar, who admitted she “also developed a cavalier attitude towards spending money.”
And like Mrs. Lamb, she also threw away her regard for fashion. “This led some years later to my employees convening a meeting to tell me that they did not want me to represent them in public dressed the way I was. After all, I was the director.”
And no one could imitate Hellcat’s fierce confidence in “not suffering fools.” Trying to stand up to bullies as Helen did left Ms. Bonnar fleeing for her life after a certain hand gesture drove a truck driver to exit his vehicle and rush toward her.
“Greatness like Helen’s is inherent in the individual. It is not achieved by imitation,” Ms. Bonnar concluded. “I just wish someone had warned me.”
And even though Hellcat cannot be replaced, and even though people try in vain to impersonate their beloved mentor (camper Peter Bradeen delivered a fabulous recitation of Jabberwocky dressed in a long skirt, blouse, and white wig), the fruits of her labors continue to grow ever larger in the sphere she created. The memorial service ended with a group singing of The Battle Hymn of the Republic — a song Mrs. Lamb had loved simply because people knew it and weren’t afraid to belt it.
“Glory, glory, hallelujah!” everyone sang in the spirit of Helen Lamb.
Her truth is marching on.