The Never-Ending Hel

by Phil Caldwell
September 2019

I’ve written articles about some of my interesting neighbors before, but Helen, or Hel as she signs her many note cards, probably takes the cake.

At the spry age of 99, Hel still lives alone and has spent most of her life here in Yarmouth other than a few years in northern Maine, I believe in the 1940s, she is still an avid gardener. I think keeping her hands in the dirt is what keeps her young.

Finally, Helen is getting better at following family orders and she is driving less and for shorter distances. Just about a year ago she often hopped on the Maine Turnpike and drove the 50 or so minutes to visit her 101-year-old sister in Arundel, near Kennebunkport. Rather than waiting for the red light to change at one of the busy Route 1 intersections, Hel prefers to cut through the corner Mobil station to save a couple of minutes. Actually, her driving skills aren’t half bad.

Being an avid gardener, Hel’s family has attempted to set certain restrictions while she works outside. Seldom does she carry her cell phone outside, as instructed. Hel’s cane is usually leaning against the garage, and her walking aids are replaced by her sturdy Rubbermaid garden cart or she is simply crawling along the ground. More than once Alice and I have seen her crawling all across the yard because she was unable to stand up by holding onto her cart. Trying to lift her is difficult due to a sore rotator cuff or back pain, I’m not sure which. All we can do is steady her garden cart if it’s too empty to support her. Fortunately she’s a peanut, less than 5′ tall and her weight can’t be a whole lot more than 100 pounds, so lifting is fairly easy if properly done.

Frankly, despite poor hearing and not great mobility, Helen seems to have a pretty sharp mind. As I mentioned, for most of her 99 years she has lived right here in Yarmouth, and I love to hear all the stories she tells me about the old days. As with anyone who has lived about a century, it’s hard to imagine the changes these people have seen. Imagine having lived through several wars, the Depression, seeing the advances in auto and air transportation, just to name a few.

Probably still being able to  pull weeds and trim the grass along her garden beds and her love for plants are part of the reason Hel has stayed so sharp; she hasn’t let her mind go dormant.

A big branch was removed from her sizeable linden tree several years ago and some rot had developed at the trunk cut. I guess Helen is still a believer in the old myth of using pruning paint, so she went to work. Her method, however, is rather unique. The branch stub was probably 6-8 inches in diameter and was severely rotted. For some reason Hel thought black Rust-Oleum would be a good treatment for the mostly decayed wound! Just for the record, I wouldn’t suggest this treatment method because now the black paint just falls off  the rotted bark! Another suggestion is to beware of anyone over 90 climbing ladders.

Some of you may recall hearing about “Herbie” the elm tree, here in Yarmouth, being removed back in 2010. It was a 212-year-old tree and 103-year-old tree warden, Frank Knight, had cared for New England’s largest elm for many years. The connection between a 212-year-old tree and a 103-year-old tree warden brought much attention to the media and after hearing from obvious local media people, NBC national news, even people in Japan, Frank was forced to take his phone off the hook. The reason I mention  “Herbie” in this article is because the elm tree was located in the front yard of Helen’s old house. Donna, Hel’s daughter, was in fact the person that named Herbie. When arborists showed up, some 65-70 years ago to trim some deadwood from the elm tree, Donna ran out in her yard and told the arborists “Don’t touch my Herbie!”

Both Helen and her daughter Donna obviously have a love for plants, I guess it’s something in their DNA!

— Phil Caldwell is a past president of NHLA (1989) who now lives and works in Maine.