Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Life, love and all that jazz

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I'm a tad too old, and way too jaded to become anyone's groupie.

And then I heard "Hellsy" sing.

As if that wasn't enough, I listened to the story of Helen White, as she's more formally known.

The story about how a young, self-destructive wannabe rock star from London, England, ended up as a jazz singer of all things, living in Poplar Point, of all places.

But it's really a love story that, fittingly -- on this Winnipeg Jazz Festival week and Father's Day weekend -- features two fathers whose guidance and support landed her in our midst.

Her own father, whose death three years ago still brings her to tears.

And the father of her three wee children.

It was Free Press deputy editor Julie Carl, another of her legion of local fans, that suggested I meet Hellsy, as I call the heavenly voiced soul who's my own daughter's age.

Hellsy was in the Fort Garry Hotel's Palm Room, the venue she says she feels she was born to play in, seated behind a piano singing Comes Love.

Which serves nicely as our background music for joining Hellsy's life in progress.

It was the year 2000, three years after a stroke had left Peter Dawson -- the father who had gifted her with his passion for music -- in a wheelchair unable to speak intelligibly, much less play any of the orchestra of instruments he once could.

"I didn't take it well," Helen says in her understated English manner.

The grieving Hellsy began acting out her nickname with an acoustic puck-rock band, while holding down a position as a secretary in the posh Central London Mayfair district.

"I was trying to block it out," she says of the pain of watching a father she worshipped die without dying.

She stopped listening to and playing classical music -- she still won't do either -- because it reminded her of what her father lost.

And what she lost when he finally died three years ago.

"I was going to be a rock star. But I was a bit of a mess. I was a heavy drinker and drug user. I was."

Then one night, at an outdoor performance at Crystal Palace Park, this lost-but-not-looking "independent woman" walked up to a young man in the crowd.

"He was gorgeous."

His name was Duncan White. He was an English and classics major in university and that night he would change the course of both their lives.

He told her she should be a jazz singer.

"We went back to my flat, I told him my deepest darkest secrets, and about two months later we were married."

It was Duncan who would support and encourage Helen to pursue her singing. To the point of moving to Winnipeg eight years ago, where he got a job as teacher so she could get her three-year master's in jazz at the University of Manitoba.

Eventually the kids began to arrive, and they would buy the only house they could afford, "a little wooden shack" in Poplar Point.

That means Duncan drives to Winnipeg to teach during the day while Helen looks after the kids, a girl, Xanthy, who's six and the boys -- four-year-old Freeman and oh-so-terribly-two Wilfred. Then, most nights, the roles are reversed. After a day of minding his junior high students, Duncan minds his own three children. And Helen drives into city for a gig or to teach voice at the Winnipeg Conservatory of Music.

That leaves the by-now-exhausted Hellsy to make the hour or more late-night drive back home to their little shack on the Prairie, even on treacherous snow-blown winter nights. Helen calls Duncan her patron and her inspiration.

In a way, the intellectual, calm and creative Duncan is much like Helen's dad.

But a husband's love is never really the same as a father's.

What I came to understand while listening to Helen is singing and composing music are her way of coping with the loss of her dad.

It's what makes her happy.

So it happened that this week she texted me all excited.

She said the Fort Garry Hotel had booked her to play their Father's Day brunch on Sunday in the room she feels she was born to play in.

Then she told me the touching part.

The day she got the news, the day she shared it with me, was her dad's birthday.

Happy Father's Day to dads everywhere. Especially the ones still watching over the children who will always miss them.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 B1

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