Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Remembering Helen

Helen Strickland, 1989 (age 70)
photo by Carl Sander, courtesy Leslie Robison
You probably have at least one of these people in your life: somebody with a larger-than-life personality, a zest for adventure, compassion for those who need it and generosity for the rest of us.

I'm lucky to know many folks with these fine qualities. But I got the sad news this morning that one of them passed away over the weekend.

Helen Strickland was a teacher, a painter and an actress.

She wasn't particularly famous outside her sphere of influence, but that sphere was wide and varied. Helen collected people and experiences during her long life. And if you were lucky enough to meet her, she made your life the richer for that friendship.

I first ran into Helen years ago at a public swimming pool. I was standing, stark naked, in the shower, when this older woman came up and said with a smile "I'd love to paint you!"

What a pick up line!

That was Helen.

She was a wonderful painter. Her watercolors of childrens' swim lessons still hang in the lobby of a North Seattle community center.

She was also a long-time high school language arts teacher and a passionate theater artist who was a member of the Seattle Peace Theater group. She was as devoted to social justice issues as she was to the arts.

Helen made a guest appearance on the radio, when we put together a segment on what seniors gain from inter-generational social contacts. The producers wanted to bring in somebody who had benefited from a wide net of friendships. Helen was perfect.

One day Helen invited me to her house for tea and scones. She wanted to show me a painting she'd been inspired to make after a visit to the Edward Hopper show at the Seattle Art Museum. Helen had copied one of Hopper's works, and she'd inserted a self portrait of herself as a young woman in place of Hopper's figure. She told me Hopper's painting reminded her of a train trip she took decades ago. She was certain the artist had seen her on that train.

Not long after my visit, Helen left her home and moved into assisted living. She was over 90 at that point, and living alone was no longer feasible. That was several years ago, and I never saw her again, although I thought of her often.

Helen lived her life with grace and passion and an enthusiasm for the people she met. I wanted, and still want, to emulate her style.

Let me give you just one last taste of Helen.

One morning in the locker room, as I donned a bright sweater with a sparkly brooch, Helen stopped in front of me and sighed.

"Oh, I had a pin like that!" she exclaimed.

She went on to describe how it went with a swath of fabric she'd received from a Seattle Sister City Exchange. (Or perhaps it was a Peace Corps event. Helen had been involved in a wealth of activities.)

"I used to be hot," she said, with her wicked smile, and mimed tossing that fabric over a shoulder. The years vanished from her face in that instant, and I had a glimpse of the young Helen.

But at age 90, Helen Strickland still was smoking hot.
And that's how I will remember a life very, very well lived.
A bloom for Helen Strickland

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