Life 101, by John Ostrander
My Aunt Helen turned 101 years old last weekend. Let me repeat that – my Aunt Helen is 101 years old. She beat her own father’s record, who died a mere six months after turning 100. She still lives in her own apartment, with help especially from my sister, Marge. Helen gave up smoking only a few years ago but she still has her drink now and then. She gets to church when she feels the urge. Big Cubs fan, even though they haven’t won a World Series since she was born. I kid Helen that she intends to hang on until they win another one if it takes another hundred years.
She’s so old she dated John McCain. Ba-dump bump. I think she’d like that gag. Aunt Helen is still pretty sharp. Me, I’m not so sure about.
She lived in the house next to ours in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood when I was growing up, along with my paternal grandmother and grandfather. When Pop-Pop had bought the property, Rogers Park was actually a suburb on Chicago’s North Side. Me, my brother, and my younger sister ran over there with some frequency because there we were little princes or princess – which we sure weren’t at home. Lord knows we took advantage of it. Well, I know I did.
Saturday night we’d have dinner there in front of the TV. Helen always served up the same meal: a bit of steak, Campbell’s Pork and Beans, and for dessert, ice cream cake roll swimming in chocolate syrup.
Let me take a moment to extol on the glories of the ice cream cake roll. The principle was the same as a jelly roll cake only the cake would be a deep chocolate and would use vanilla ice-cream instead of jelly. It’s impossible to find on the East Coast. Even in Chicago, the quality has gone down. The last one I had, the cake was stale, thin, and had freezer burn, as did the very artificial vanilla ice cream that was in it. I’ve wandered off the topic again but… dang! It was ice cream cake roll!
I think I remember some of the shows I used to watch during those Saturday night dinners such as Patrick McGoohan in Danger Man (which would later become Secret Agent) and Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk playing Nick and Nora Charles in a TV version of The Thin Man. After dinner we’d watch The Jackie Gleason Show that included the Miami Beach version of The Honeymooners. If we were lucky, we escaped before The Lawrence Welk Show came on.
Helen used to take us on little outings as well. At least once a season, we’d go to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs play. I was born on the North Side of Chicago so being a Cubs fan wasn’t really an option, but the trips to the ballpark certainly cemented it. Yes, we’d get all the food that you usually stuff a child with at a ballpark and then hope they don’t throw it back up on the trip home. However, we also got scorecards and Helen showed us how to fill it in and keep a boxscore. I dutifully tried to do it her way but I eventually made up my own system that made more sense to me. It didn’t matter; this was watching baseball in the sunlight and the fresh air, amidst the friendly ivy covered confines of Wrigley Field as the Cubs lost. The way God meant baseball to be.
I remember another outing, just Helen, my brother Joe, and me. Joe and I were real young at the time – maybe six or seven. We went out by bus to one of the northern suburbs, I forget which one, and we were taken to a luncheonette called The Choo Choo Inn. We sat at the counter, ordered burgers and cokes, and when our order was ready, it came over on a model train whose track was set just inside the counter. The plates were on little flatbed cars. We took our order off and then the train went on. That was magic.
Helen never married. Her sister, Dor, came down with a wasting disease (I think it was MS but I could be wrong) and Helen would come home after work to help nurse her. Dor died at a relatively young age and after that Helen took care of her parents in their later years. However, it wasn’t simply duty that led Helen to this choice. She had beaus and she knew how to have a good time. The choice she made was her choice.
Even into her Nineties, she was known as our family “party girl,” getting up at weddings to do the hokey-pokey. The last time nearly killed her – literally – and it was decided among the family that we wouldn’t do that again. Her 100th birthday was well-attended, lively, and Helen was surrounded by family and friends. Nephews and nieces had children who in turn have had children. She’s Aunt Helen to them all.
I’m struck, again and again, by how much history has occurred in her lifetime. Theodore Roosevelt was President the year that she was born. In the same year, Picasso began his work in cubism and the Model T first rolled off the assembly line. The British Empire at that time covered one-fifth of the planet’s land mass, a massive empire on whom the sun would never set. The Wright Brothers had flown only five years before.
Helen was six when World War 1 began; she was nine when America entered it and when Russia had its revolution that would lead to the USSR. She was 12 when women received the vote and when prohibition started. The stock market fell and the Depression started shortly after she became 21.
She worked all her life for one company, Montgomery Wards. That’s hard to imagine these days, isn’t it? One employer for all of your working career. When Social Security began in 1935, she would have been among the first paying into it.
I’ll try not to belabor the point about history, but there are some items worth noting. She has lived through not only World War 1 but World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq 1 and now Iraq 2. Weapons have advanced from poison gas to the introduction of the atomic bomb, on to the hydrogen bomb, and now the use of terrorist bombs and, once again, deadly gas and germ warfare. That’s one lifetime, folks.
Flight was in its infancy when she was in her infancy. It rapidly developed through the warplanes of the First World War and on to the landing of humans on the Moon and now, the discovery of ice on Mars. That’s one lifetime, folks.
America was struggling to find its place among the greatest nations when Helen first came into the world. Theodore Roosevelt was a blatant Imperialist, eager to build an American Empire. However, the leaders of the Great Nations barely gave a nod to Woodrow Wilson during the Treaty of Versailles that would end the First World War and lay down the seeds for the Second. America became isolationist until drawn into the Second World War and afterwards became a superpower, eventually becoming the only Superpower, and now we stand at the brink of becoming… something less. That’s one lifetime, folks.
She was born during the Suffragette Movement and has lived through the Feminist Movement and the Post Feminist Movements. The NAACP would be founded the year after Helen was born; the first African American person I ever met was Bessie who cleaned the house Helen lived in. Rights would be abused and denied to blacks, to women, to gays but things do change. 2008 is not 1908. Progress can be found within one long lifespan.
I make my living from comics, a field that didn’t exist until Aunt Helen was 26 (the year was 1934 and the book was Famous Funnies). When Superman came on the scene, Helen was 30. Admittedly, she was never Superman’s target audience. On the other hand, there are plenty of women, right here right now, at ComicMix that do read comics including Superman. Some, such as my friend Gail Simone, write them and others, like Jan Duursema, my partner on Star Wars Legacy, even draw them! Times change indeed.
Yet, when I’ve asked Aunt Helen what she remembers of some of those past times, she usually shrugs it off unless pertinent to her world. That was the past and she lives very much in the present. She lived through those times and, to an extent, they are part of her but she cannot be defined solely by them.
However, using her lifespan as a prism gives me a sense of context. History is not just what is past; it is the framework for the present. It is not distant because it is part of one living person’s (admittedly long) lifespan. All history is current.
Among my family, we refer to Aunt Helen as our ‘Golden Oldie” – the last of a trio that included my mother and my Aunt Marge. Among my siblings and myself is the realization that, when Helen inevitably dies, we will become the “golden oldies” to the next generation, a designation to which none of us are particularly aspiring, thank you very much. Still, Helen appears to be in good health and will hopefully be around for some time to come. I don’t think even the Cubs winning another World Series would bother her.
On the other hand, the shock of such an event will probably kill me.
Ah well, I should be safe. As they say in the play, Bleacher Bums, ‘Nobody ever went broke betting against the Cubs after the Fourth of July.”
Happy birthday, Aunt Helen.
John Ostrander writes Star Wars Legacy, GrimJack, Munden’s Bar and a whole new thing coming soon to a ComicMix near you.