Imagine you were born in 1916, half-way through the first world war and a Polio outbreak. You were two when the Spanish Flu claimed 50 million lives worldwide. When you reached 14, the Great Depression began, and by the time you were 24, your fellow Canadians were engaged in World War II. In your thirties, you survived a second Polio outbreak and another influenza pandemic in your early forties. You saw still another flu epidemic called Hong Kong flu in your fifties. In the middle of that one, you watched man land on the moon. You’ve seen the world go from horse and buggy days to super-sonic jets, from telegraph to instant messaging. You’ve been through fires and floods, losses and celebrations. Now you are 104 and living through yet another worldwide pandemic.
I have not met Helen Doell, but she turned 104 last weekend. Born to Russian Mennonite immigrants on May 30, 1916, Helen grew up in a family of eleven siblings in a two-room house in rural Saskatchewan. It’s hard for us to grasp the level of poverty experienced by her generation, especially during the Great Depression.
Helen’s memories include roughly-hewn floorboards, a bench that converted to a bed, and their only toys being a pair of scissors and the Eaton’s catalogue. In summer, they played imaginative games with stones and old syrup tins.
If you’ve found isolating a challenge, imagine being cooped up with all these kids in a tiny house with no modern conveniences, books, or toys. Helen’s dad would not allow them to play outside in winter because he did not want them ruining their only shoes. When her dad left to collect mail, Helen’s mom sent the kids outside despite the rule. I hear ya, sister.
Helen’s parents built a covered wagon and moved from southern to northern Saskatchewan where they were offered free land. At the age of 12, she developed an ear infection which continued to drain from her ear for over fifty years. When she finally had an operation in her seventies, her doctor said it was a miracle the infection hadn’t reached her brain.
Helen attended school in German for only three winters and then in English at age 13 when she had to begin again at Grade 1 because her English wasn’t good enough. At 15, she left school to help support the family. Food was scarce, especially following the drought and dust storms when a plague of grasshoppers consumed their garden. Though they never missed a meal, those meals frequently consisted of gooey dumplings or bread cubes dipped in sugar water.
|Daughters Helen Wiebe and Carolyn Paul visit|
Still, her children can’t remember her ever complaining. Generous, hospitable, and humble are words they use to describe her. “She’d always give something to visitors or if she went to visit others: a dozen eggs, a jar of cream, or something she had sewn,” her daughter Carolyn says.
Now a resident of Lions Prairie Manor, Helen has endured isolation from family during an already confusing and lonely stage of life. Carolyn describes their visits. “We contact a staff member who brings Mom to the window and helps us connect by phone. It’s difficult because Mom is hard of hearing and masks make it even harder. But staff have been so accommodating and kind.”
When staff asked her Saturday morning what she would like for her 104th birthday, Helen’s reply was “God’s blessings.” With the recent loosening of restrictions, she was able to enjoy her first face-to-face visit with her four daughters since March (albeit from six feet away), two at a time, outdoors. God gave them a beautiful, sunny day.
Helen’s family knows her as a prayer warrior with a heart for service and a well-worn Bible. One of Helen’s favorite expressions is, “We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.”
Perhaps Helen and her generation understand more than any other that, although we live in a desperately broken world, it’s possible to live with joy and hope in your heart—the definition of a full life, regardless of its length.
|Helen Doell on her 104th birthday. Behind her are her four daughters.|