At ninety, Harriet is exquisite, but she doesn’t feel beautiful. “Photograph my Buddha statue. Not me,” she said. As soon as my shutter clicked, she softened, her eyes closing to hear the click. The sound of the camera reminded her of her husband, a photographer, named Henry, who died about three years ago. He was the beauty in Helen’s life, her gravity and momentum.
Without him, Helen is alone in a house filled with his art, tokens of their travels together, and baskets of love notes and letters. His photo is everywhere. All conversations shift to him. Harriet is still grieving, and will always be grieving Henry.
As she sat in her wicker throne and told me about the state of her heart, I thought about her vulnerability and her bravery. I thought about how life only comes down to this- to be willing to be deeply sad and wildly happy and live to tell about both. It’s about being a witness to one other without emotional squeamishness, listening without fixing, being without judging.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Well, Henry. Did I know I was in love? Well, I was in my early 30’s in Newport, Rhode Island. I had just come home from Japan and they gave me a plush assignment at the naval hospital. And Henry was in town and he had a friend who knew I was single, working as a field director at the hospital. So he came over to check me out, as they say, and I was on the ward, so I wasn’t there. And he left his number with my bookkeeper, Annie, who was an New England maid, who was almost shaking when I came back, ‘There was such a good looking man who was asking for you, Helen, and here’s his telephone number he wants you to call him’ she said. And I knew if he was good enough for Annie, he was good enough for me. And I called him and he invited me over to his apartment. I mean, the minute…it just, it was earth-shaking. You meet so many people. I had broken an engagement. I was looking for my soul-mate. And there he was, my soul-mate. To find that person, honey, is such a miracle. It began right there. He bought me a bicycle and took me sailing in the harbor. After that, nothing mattered. I would have fit into his life, I would have given up anything. Because it wasn’t giving up, it was finding.
TELL ME ABOUT ONE OF THE LESSONS YOU LEARNED FROM SADNESS.
Oh God, right now. Right now. Never will go through anything so terrible as losing your soul-mate. That is the worst thing. The most gut-wrenching, heart scooping out, everything terrible. It’s been three and a half years now. And it just, you know, you really do think of terrible things, like ending your own life. It’s that bad. And, I learned many things in order to survive. Patience, disappointment. Because you survive this with whatever character you’ve mustered, that’s what gives you the strength. You start building your character from the time you are born until these things happen. And your family and all the things that have supported you and made you the person that you are, all this is used and comes to bear when this terrible thing happens. For the first time, I really understood why young people resort to alcohol or drugs, or cut themselves or hurt themselves, because the pain is so terrible, they have to do something, they have to grab something. So, they didn’t have the family, they don’t have the supports, they don’t have religion, there are young people and old people with no inner strength. You muster all this reserve at these crucial times. So I can see why they would grab for a joint or a drink or they would hurt themselves to blot it out.
WHERE DO YOU THINK YOUR STRENGTH CAME FROM?
From the beginning, my family. That’s where it started. My childhood. And then, your genes, which you are born with. Do you want me to give you the quote I learned from my grief group that I would talk to about these things. In our particular group, we had all lost spouses. It was an incredible group. All were intelligent people. They were all like myself, post- retirement. We learned a lot from each other. I’m bothering to find these words because they are very important to me. I thought through them. Oh, look at these pictures of Henry when he was older, wasn’t he darling? Maybe this is it… here we are, I found the paper. I like to write things down. ‘Yes. Patience. Compromise. You have to make compromises. You have to accept disappointments, you have to be resilient. Life, no matter how terrible it is, it still have surprises, wonderful surprises.” You know, you see the world quite differently when you are happy and everything is going well. You feel all the day-to-day things are very important. And suddenly, it’s all changed. But those words that I gave you, those are the words that hold it together.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM HAPPINESS?
You know, that’s the thing that’s so awful about now. I was always in a state of happiness. Some people are born optimistic, able to experience joy. And I was one of those fortunate people. And now, I can’t even bear to listen to symphony music because it stirs me too much, because Henry’s not here to listen with me. All these beautiful things- most movies I can’t tolerate. All the beauty is just painful now without Henry. Happiness was just a natural state. Lots of women feel this with their children. Henry has a child from a previous marriage, I just never got pregnant, it was just us. And for so many couples, that’s not enough, but for us it was. I’m able to experience good feelings now. At first, I couldn’t feel it anymore.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO PEOPLE MY AGE?
Just look at your own life. You don’t need any advice. You are a creative gal. But, I say, strike when the irons hot. You know, if somebody wants to you do something or offers you an opportunity, don’t hesitate- jump in. Because those things don’t come again. For instance, with Henry, I was offered a job to be the director of the Red Cross at a new hospital being built in Guam. A wonderful opportunity for my career! But I didn’t want that career anymore. So it was sad to retire, but I knew I couldn’t be free to travel like I had to. And so I went to be near Henry. You have to make those decision, and if you make the wrong decision…
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHICH DECISION IS RIGHT?
I’ve always had such passion about things. I know. And I do. I don’t wait. I mean, it’s just in me. And, some people are indecisive and that’s the way they are. But it never was. We all are different in all these different ways. But when I wanted something, I felt it very strongly. I think that’s one of the wonderful things in life, to be a passionate person, to have a lot of passion and feeling about what you believe and what to do.
WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING 90?
Not much. It’s no experience, really. It’s just something you have to tolerate. You become 90. The thing is, I call it post-old age. People say 70’s and 80’s is old age. Henry and I, we used to say, ‘When are we going to feel old?’ He was doing his bicycle, I was going to yoga. Concerts, traveling. That’s living! When you become incapacitated in certain ways, that’s post-old age. That’s post-living. Sometimes people say they want to live to one hundred, but I don’t know if they would really want to. As long as you have your health, life is wonderful. But when you begin to lose... When I gave away my bicycle- big tears. You know, you are retrenching, retrenching, retrenching. Some people are in a wheelchair, and some people are in bed. You have to be grateful. The saying goes, and seniors say it a lot, ‘old age is not for wimps.’ And that’s the truth! You have to be a tough old broad.
TELL ME ABOUT A MOMENT WHERE YOU KNEW YOU WERE IN LOVE?
I don’t remember a moment after I met him. That was it, I always knew right away. I was old enough that I had met a lot of people and traveled a lot. You know, you just in your mind, you put it all together. For young people, for inexperienced people, I’m sure it’s more difficult.
TELL ME ABOUT WHAT YOUR ADVENTURES TAUGHT YOU.
Old, lord. My whole life was an adventure! It’s the way to live, that’s what it taught me. The thing is, you can’t have a family and be out having adventures. You can’t be going abroad and climbing mountains,- I went to Mexico on my bicycle- and you can’t do these things if you are having babies! So it just depends on where your life is. If you have a family, that has to be the primary focus. For some women, having a career can be primary focus. For me, a person was primary, mainly my husband. Some people can’t understand that because their career is important. You, you will always be using your camera, probably after your marriage. The work that you create, you’ll probably always be doing that. But it might not always be primary, it depends on what your marriage is like. Or babies! They can take over everything. I think the central thing, is that it can’t always be yourself. It has to be someone else, some other thing of greater importance.
Harriet was nominated by my junior high art teacher and kindred friend, Mary Pasley, who lives in Boise Idaho. Mary is Harriet’s niece- and although they are very close, they have only met in person once.