When I last wrote about Peace Pilgrim (May 15, 2017), it was in recognition of her election to the NJ Hall of Fame.
The (largely unrecognized) subtext to the Peace Pilgrim story is the vital role of her younger sister, Helene Young. Peace Pilgrim (Mildred) took to the road and (unintentionally) achieved considerable recognition. Helene stayed home, providing a private, safe haven for Peace Pilgrim, handling her correspondence and (with help from her husband Eugene Young) carefully documenting her sister’s extensive travel and heartfelt message of inner peace.
Peace Pilgrim died in 1981 at age 72. Helene lived to be 105, 32 years older! Those years brought challenges and many losses. After Peace Pilgrim’s shocking death in 1981, Helene lost her beloved husband Eugene, her daughter Jeanne Fisher, and I don’t know how many other family members and friends.
It was my very good fortune to know Helene during her last quarter century. She loved music. We attended concerts at Stockton University. I took her to see a Stockton performance of Messiah at a casino in Atlantic City. The walk from the parking ramp to the auditorium was ridiculously long – across a “sky walk” from the garage, through long corridors and across the casino floor. The “average” 90+ year old might have faltered, but not Helene.
Helene came to parties at my house, once sitting down at the piano and playing exuberantly. I went to a “Friends of Peace Pilgrim” potluck at her home, with a funny consequence. I had cooked a vegetarian casserole which included nuts, seeds and raisins… very popular! I left the excess behind for Helene. Unfortunately, returning to my kitchen, I realized that one ingredient had been infested with meal moths, including their ugly little worm-like larvae! Ack! Completely harmless, but gross… I felt duty bound to tell Helene. “Throw out the leftovers! So sorry!” She took the news with total calm. We discussed her problems with keeping a clean kitchen when legally blind, and her worries that she might once have put moldy bird food into her feeders. A conversation unique in my experience!
I shared Helene’s enjoyment of bicycling. She went out in colder weather than I could tolerate. I would encounter her at the cemetery where her sister was buried, and in Cologne. Eventually, she was so blind she couldn’t recognize me across the street, but she saw well enough, with her gaze on the shoulder, to pedal around the familiar streets safely.
During one of my last visits, in the midst of a discussion of our common German heritage, we burst into song! “Du, du, liebst mir im Hertzen…” Old German “oompah” music, possibly a drinking song. Helene loved to talk about her childhood in Egg Harbor City. I think she spoke German before she entered school.
Covid struck when Helene was 104, so our relationship was reduced to phone calls.
Helene’s interest in books, people and events did not wane. In September of 2020, she told me she wanted to live to see Donald Trump out of the White House and the Covid pandemic defeated. I regret that she witnessed the terrible events of January 6, 2021. She spent her last months carefully quarantined by her loving family and died quietly of old age (not Covid) on January 14, 2021. Rest in peace, Helene!
PS: Recently, I’ve been party to discussions about death. Americans “don’t like to talk about death” and use a variety of euphemisms for the word. During her last three years (at least), Helene looked death in the eye, calmly. She discussed death freely, especially after she got hurt and was unable to continue her bicycle outings. She bought a dress to be buried in. She spoke of death as “turning up my toes”.