Its been a heckuva ride for Helen
- Jill Spitznass
- Portland Tribune - Features
My grandmother wants me to cut her hair Ñ right now. 'Just take it all off; it's driving me crazy,' she says from the hospital bed that is mussing her usually tidy white waves.
Both the desire for a crisp do and the crisp attitude are typical Helen, who, as a little girl, pestered her parents for a boy's haircut until the stolid Norwegians relented, giving her a trip to the barbershop for her 7th birthday.
'They told me that I'd be sorry, but I was so happy I cut it,' she says.
Now 86 and in Good Sam's oncology unit, my grandmother retains her vanity and feisty spirit, which seem like good signs in the face of a decidedly crummy situation.
'My nails are holding up,' she says, examining the charmingly inexpert work of her young great-granddaughters, who have applied a shimmery pink polish to her fingernails and her signature tomato red on her toes.
It was the same red she wore under steel-toed boots in the shipyards on Swan Island, where she was a Rosie the Riveter during World War II. Grandma believed Ñ as most women did then Ñ that a bit of glamour was as crucial to the war effort as a watertight submarine. She recalls trying to make a tube of lipstick go further by applying it to just her bottom lip. Pressing one's lips together spread the creamy substance around.
Helen was living in Coos Bay with her parents and her young daughter from her first marriage when her sister wrote to tell her about the big bucks to be made in the shipyards. The then-princely sum of $1.12 an hour was a huge increase from what she was making as a waitress: 35 cents with tips. She moved to Portland, where the sisters shared a room in the Topanga Apartments on West Burnside, located next to the original Ringside restaurant.
To get to work, my grandmother rode the streetcar to Stark Street, where a bus took employees to the shipyard. Here, she watched the likes of Mamie Eisenhower and Red Skelton christen the freshly fabricated ships.
This is also where she met her second husband, when, family lore has it, he accidentally dropped a hot bolt on her neck. She told me she knew she was smitten when she gave him her ration coupons so he could buy cigarettes.
That's not to say that the modern-minded gal didn't take care of herself. It was about this time that she splurged on Fiestaware, designer shoes and a fur coat, a gesture of independence that still hangs in her bedroom closet.
Like other women who'd had a taste of economic freedom (not to mention the thrill of helping the war effort), it was with a bit of reluctance that my grandmother went back to the home front after the war ended. But there were eventually four children to raise and a pristine home to maintain Ñ not that this was an excuse for not planting a vegetable garden, putting up preserves and drying laundry in the fresh air.
My grandmother is a tough but loving person, although the last bit is sometimes lost on her nurses. One recently made the mistake of asking her what a doctor had said that morning.
'I said, 'Don't ask me Ñ look at my chart!' ' my grandmother recounts with a tad of glee.
And now, the woman who's told three generations to squeeze all they can out of life is looking back on hers.
'My parents were good people. I should have been a better person.'
'Grandma, you're a wonderful person,' I say.
'I made my kids pick berries every summer. They didn't like it.'
'Mom says she loved it,' I say. 'It made her a better person.'
My grandmother laughs and pauses for a moment.
'You know, it's been a good ride,' she says, smiling. 'I wouldn't change a thing.'