When I worked at Wellesley College, part of my job involved keeping on top of the class secretaries and their quarterly deadlines for the alumnae magazine. Most secretaries were e-mail-able, so we conducted our business electronically. But the 1928 secretary, understandably, preferred hand-written letters and telephone calls. Helen lived in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, and over the course of our feature-film-length chats, she would estimate the height of her snow drifts and tell me about the deer, raccoons, and other creatures who came calling. "Sometime you'll have to come out here and see all this for yourself," she'd invariably say.
So one day, I took her up on the offer and drove the three hours to Wellfleet. We were to be having tea with one of her friends, a fellow nonagenarian and Wellesley grad, so I brought a box of fresh cookies and a bouquet of spring flowers. As we set the table, Helen careened about the kitchen in her wheelchair, looking quite a bit more frail in person than she had ever sounded on the phone. But she lived alone and managed just fine, she always told me. And she had the support of a big family--the kind with the sprawling group photos.
Helen told me about her career as a dancer (she worked with Martha Graham) and showed me photos from her honeymoon, not long after she graduated in 1928, when she and her beloved flew across the Atlantic to Paris in the tiniest of airplanes. I took photos of Helen and her friend and published them in the magazine--which was both exhilarating and a bit mortifying for someone as humble and unassuming as Helen. But not long afterwards, the friend passed away, and Helen told me how difficult it is to bury so many friends. And then, quite unexpectedly, her son died. Helen was wrecked. Sometimes our conversations never got past the subject, and I started taking over her class-secretary duties.
In time, her humor returned. When I turned 30, she told me that was the oldest she'd ever felt in life. When I told her I was leaving Wellesley to work on an organic farm, she was overjoyed. We talked about staying in touch, about the possibility of another visit. While I thought of her often, we never spoke again.
I was thinking about Helen the other day and asked the folks at the magazine if they'd heard from her lately. They hadn't. Today, I learned that she passed away on Sunday, at the age of 98, surrounded by family and a legacy of stories and friendships and memories. That's the way to do it, old gal.