On December 4, 2015, I sat down with my grandmother, Helen Givens, to ask her about her life and her thoughts on her world. Helen recently turned 91 and has lived a life propelled by giving and caring for others. Her big heart and introspective thoughts made her an interesting subject for my first interview of amazing aging individuals.
Helen Givens was born in 1924 one year after her older brother, Lee, was born and two years after her older sister, Madeline, was born. Her father worked for the Federal Government in charge of Insect Pest Control for the Country so they lived in Washington, D.C. Helen, who has no dementia, easily recalls her childhood; she and her family were able to roll Easter eggs on the White House lawn with President Hoover before that became a public event. Because of her father’s job, her parents had access to a fancy lifestyle but were not impressed by it. They preferred a quiet, and strict, but fair, life at home. Helen said she was not a good student in school but her father cared most of all about her grade in Deportment. “I always had an ‘A’ in Deportment, “ she says. “I adored my father.” Helen never wanted to let him down. She remembered there was a time when she was small that her mother was about to spank her. Helen’s father walked in and laughed at the situation. She was deeply upset by his response because she had disappointed her father and she never wanted to experience that again.
Sadly, Helen did not have a long life with her father. When she was a junior in high school, her father died in a hotel while away on business. She later learned her father had been ill but she had not been aware of it at the time. “It broke my heart,” Helen says. Her mother waited for Helen to graduate from high school and then was given a government job in Whittier, California. “So my mother drove to California with three useless teenagers.” When Helen was in her new neighborhood, she walked into a church out of curiosity. Hers was not a church family; her mother always said that people were closer to God in a garden than in a church. Yet, in that moment in the church, Helen felt her father was with her again. She would later become involved in church, unlike her mother.
“(Children) need to be well prepared for a legal and happy life. Doing it any other way is wrong.”
Life in California brought happiness to the family. When Helen was 18, she met Bill Givens who was 25. After a very brief courtship, they married. “Those of us who had good relationships are very fortunate,” she says. “I was very lucky. I adored him from the moment we met. We were best friends on the same path all the way through life.” Helen was a devoted housewife but she admits she has never really enjoyed cooking and thinks Bill may have felt the same about her cooking. Whenever they went out to eat he would tell her they would not dine at any restaurant advertised as home-style cooking, she jokes.
Helen and Bill had three children. They tried to provide a similar home life to hers for the children. With three children, eight grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren now, she has strong opinions on parenting. Helen believes a parent’s role is to raise independent adults. “You can’t hang on,” she says. “(Children) need to be well prepared for a legal and happy life. Doing it any other way is wrong. As my kids grew, they were smarter than I was at their age because of the information that was available to them. I wasn’t going to question them. It was time to let them follow their own path.” Helen, who worshipped her father, feels the role of the mother is highly important. “Without a mother, you are lacking something. You need footsteps to follow.” She cautions against the role the media can play in kids’ lives. “There are people more interested in power and they are directing the lives of children with movies and music.” Parents need to be careful not to let go of their responsibilities.
Although Helen has many traditional views, she has rapidly evolved with the times. She has one gay grandson, one gay great-grandson, and a transgender great-grandson. She has accepted every one of them without a moment’s hesitation. Why? “Everybody was created by God,” she says. “If they don’t fit into the mold (you expect) of them, tough! God intended that person (to be that way). It is arrogant of you to say someone should be more like you want them to be or anything other than God intended.” She is extremely proud of all of her children and grandkids. Family is a treasure Helen has always loved fiercely and has welcomed newcomers into the flock, and loved them with the same passion. (When my grandmother stated that she loved all of her grandchildren, I said, “But isn’t there one grandchild you love just a little more than all the others, Gramma? Wink, wink. She just laughed. It’s okay. I know that’s code for, ‘Yes, Dear. That would be you.’” Sorry, cousins.)
“It is arrogant of you to say someone should be more like you want them to be or anything other than God intended.”
Over the course of her 91 years, Helen has, of course, seen many changes in the world. She remembers the radio and how her family would gather around it to listen to programs. Housework was much harder back then she says. Her own mom had three kids and cooked everything from scratch every day. “Women have it easier now.” Technology has made many improvements but the things she is most impressed by are the improvements in medication. “What they can do for people [now]!” The changes in modern travel are something she also appreciates, “The ability to travel and stay connected and then return home again,” have changed. People used to leave home and it was often permanent.
Regarding current events, Helen thinks things have changed for the worse because of politicians and their ambitions. “There aren’t any statesmen anymore. They are affected by whom they associate with. Power and money rule.” Does she believe the world is a bad place? “No. Average people are good and hardworking. They just want to provide for their families.”
Helen is an excellent example of aging well. There is no point in asking her about the secrets to a long life; she clearly comes from good genes. Her older brother is 92 and her sister is 93. All three of them are in fairly good health and not one of them has dementia. She does have some thoughts on how to grow older, though. “Older people have to have a life to enjoy. You cannot just rely on your kids. There are all kinds of interesting people who need help (volunteers). It is impossible not to find some organization that can help you feel whole.”
“I have had an easy life. I went through life on a pink cloud!”
Helen started volunteering decades ago. She was active in scouts when her children were young. Her great love was to be a nurse but the demands of nursing school were too much with a busy husband and three children. Instead, she volunteered with a hospital and taught an aquatic exercise class at the YMCA for people with arthritis. When she moved to San Diego she became involved in city government. Helen was appointed by the city council to be the vice chair for the Commission on Aging. She continued to volunteer with hospice and was the vice chair to successfully raise money for new police and fire stations. As the vice chair that convinced voters to approve a raise in sales tax, the victory was bittersweet. “The first time I went to the grocery store after the raise took effect, I told the clerk she must have overcharged me. ‘They raised sales taxes, ma’am’ the clerk said. Gulp! I did that!” she laughed. In seriousness she said the raise has done wonders for the city and has helped to keep it fiscally sound.
Throughout her life, Helen has fulfilled the role of caregiver to her mother and her husband. Her mother had experienced some strokes and was unable to function. She and Bill discovered that a relative had been borrowing money from her mother to the extent that Helen and Bill had to take over her house payments. They tried to bring her mom to live with them but it was too difficult. Helen moved her mom into a nearby nursing home and visited every day. She walked her mom and fed her during daily visits. Helen’s mom continued to decline and she was with her mom when she died. After her mom passed away, Helen occasionally provided care to her husband, Bill, throughout surgeries and health issues in his later years. She was always good-natured about it and stated that she truly enjoyed a challenge anyway. In 2002, Helen was recovering from double bypass surgery. Bill waited for her to return from the hospital to join him at home before he was able to let go of his suffering from pancreatic cancer and passed away peacefully.
In spite of her involvement with hospital work, Helen has not had detailed end-of-life conversations with her own children. She insists she does not want to be a burden to her children but admits she might not have a choice when the time comes. She does not feel the need for talking about it at this point and says she will wait until it is necessary to have that talk.
Does she have any more thoughts to share? “I’ve had a great life, “ Helen says, “wonderful parents, fabulous marriage, good kids, great grandkids. I’m having fun. And I love people! I have a legacy to live up to. But you have to have a sense of humor and laugh at yourself. When asked to rank her life on a scale ranging from very difficult to very easy, Helen answered quickly, “I have had an easy life. I went through life on a pink cloud!” What an image! She was also able to easily respond to the question about what she would want people to say about her after her death. “She loved life. She loved people. She loved being a part of the community.”