By WILLIAM SHANNON
Earlier this summer, on the Fourth of July, I visited with Helen Henderson at her home in Linlithgo, N.Y.
Her 105th birthday is in a week (September 25th), and she has been alive for about 44 percent of the time that the United States has been a country.
“I don’t know where the time goes,” she said, while we each dropped pits from cherries into an ash tray. “I don’t how it’s happened. How I’ve made it this far. And some people—seems they hardly get to live at all.”
Helen has outlived many of her former students. She taught from 1930 through 1972, beginning before there was a centralized school in the Germantown-Livingston area, though she keeps tabs on many of the ones still living, including one of her first students, who is now an 85-year-old gentleman living in California.
I told Helen how my inclination is to think about death fairly often and how I hope to harness the thoughts and live in a fashion that slows life down. I told her how John Steinbeck, when he was toward the end of his life, talks in 'Travels With Charley' about how, when a person is young they think a lot about death and how he personally thought of it less and less as he got older. Helen could see I was fishing for wisdom. “When you’re younger,” she said, “you can just throw that off as if it’s never gonna happen to you.”
A month after I stopped in to see Helen, I was reading a book by Alain de Botton called ‘The Consolations of Philosophy.’
The book served as a reminder at how un-unique my fixation is and how, for many millennia, scores of singular humans have scraped out different ways of grappling with their impending doom.
A couple of the basic ways to grapple that I teeter between would be (1.) to let myself snap into autopilot, welcoming most forms of escapism and generally finding a muted contentment in the process; but, after some number of weeks feeling guilty that I let myself off the hook again; and (2.) thinking for long stretches on things small and large, during which time I really feel the joys of the nice things and the hurt of the rough things; and usually after some number of weeks I come to envy the aloof side of me.
Maybe neither approach is better, or both are needed, but de Botton summarized some of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) views on the matter. De Botton writes that to let yourself fall in love and fully embrace the world and the things you haven’t seen or experienced yet— “These were, Nietzsche implied, some of the elements human beings naturally needed for a fulfilled life. He added an important detail; that it was impossible to attain them without feeling very miserable some of the time:
‘What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other… you have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief … or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of the capacity for joy.’"
Eating cherries on Independence Day with Helen Henderson, I sought her perspective on the current state of U.S. presidential politics and told her of my plan then to observe at the fringes of both of the party conventions that month.
She smiled at my plan and said, regarding this year’s race, “I haven’t concerned myself with it too much—the people running are so stupid.”
She hesitates at picking the best president of her lifetime, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt “was a good, good president. More so than he gets credit for. And people like Coolidge weren’t so bad either.”
We talked about history repeating itself. And, will there ever be another World War?
“I’m sure of it,” Helen said. “They sort of crop up. People forget after a while.”
Helen has plenty of memories from World War II and even a vague recollection of the end of the first World War (Which she talked of in an interview I had with her last year: http://bit.ly/2cUAysH).
When a man born seven years after Helen Henderson was brought home last month, nearly seventy-three years after he died in World War II, I rode up to his hometown of Chatham to stop into the calling hours.
George H. Traver was one of 18,000 U.S. Marines sent to seize the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands from the Japanese in November of 1943. The battle was bloody and 25-year-old Traver became one of the thousands of casualties of the 76-hour operation which resulted in the U.S. capturing the island.
Seven decades later, members of an organization called History Flight, which aims to repatriate fallen U.S. soldiers, recovered and identified Traver’s remains, originally buried near the battle site. Part of the homecoming included a wake at the funeral home in Chatham.
The flag-draped coffin rested at the front. A picture of Traver, and his Purple Heart were on display nearby. People mingled and caught up with those they hadn’t seen in a long time. Most in attendance had never personally known Traver and I tried to picture a wake for him if it had been held right after his death in 1943.
Copies of his letters sent home during the war were in binders near the coffin. I stood and read quite a few of them. He talked of his girlfriend Marjorie and how she had told him in a letter that she hoped he wouldn’t pick up card-playing while away and he found that funny because there was barely enough free time each day to use the bathroom. Sometimes in the letters, he wrote that he wished his family would send more letters, suggesting that if his girlfriend could send so many, surely they could too.
“I receive a letter from Marjorie every day,” he wrote in one letter shortly before his death. “(Must be love?)”
In July, with Helen Henderson, who had volunteered on the home front during that war, we talked of the treed gulley behind her house created from an iron mine that collapsed ages ago; of our favorite authors; and of the locations of the most popular speakeasies in Hudson and Germantown during America’s prohibition of alcohol, during which Helen came of age.
And the large clock at the back of Helen’s couch, its top leaning against the wall between our heads, ticked with a cadence so nice I almost stopped hearing it.
(Post Script: Anyone wanting to send well-wishes for Helen Henderson's 105th birthday may do so, care of Mary Howell, by email: MJH@MHcable.com)
The title of this new column, “Flash,” is short for “Flash of life: a chronicle of efforts to slow life down.” William Shannon runs the website hudsonriverzeitgeist.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times and The Boston Globe. His book 'Hudson River Zeitgeist: Interviews from 2015,' is available at the Solaris Gift Shop at 360 Warren Street in Hudson and through hrzeitgeist.com.