The Extraordinary Life of Aunt Helen
08/21/2015 02:25PM ● Published by Aubray Onderik
By: Miriam Landru
When I began at CityView, longtime account executive Suzanne Dudley would come to work weekly with treats. I am talking brownies, strawberry cake, pound cake and angel food cake with all the fixins’ would rotate monthly and sit on our little round kitchen table, in our tiny break room. Knowing that Suzanne, a dedicated wife and mother of four, worked a full-time job complete with her other obvious duties, did not bake all of those goodies…. I asked one day who did.
She expressed to me that her Great Aunt Helen was the head chef of the mother-in-law suite in the Dudley household and had been living with them for over a decade. From time to time, Suzanne would offer tidbits to this dear woman’s very interesting life…
But, I won’t divulge now…. keep reading.
To give you an idea, Helen Elliot was born at the height of the Great War, after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, but before the entry of the United States into World War I. Little did the world know that the quiet rumble of her birth in Bladen County, North Carolina would give way to a life that has certainly been worth living… in war and in peace.
Aunt Helen is fashionable. Her earrings and necklace both match the green and blue geometric print in her blazer that you could imagine a fashionable 25-year-old sporting. She is a sprightly, punctual woman who loves the Lord and is an absolute joy to be around.
This is what I gathered about her in three minutes flat.
Aunt Helen had an idyllic childhood in Bladenboro, spending days at school or her father’s dry goods store. “He sold everything, grocery items, anything you would want. But, toward the end, business wasn’t so good.” The “end” Aunt Helen is referring to is the beginning of the Great Depression and the death of her father when she was only 13. His death left his wife with eight children to rear. Aunt Helen is the fifth of eight. Six boys, two girls.
“We were all brought up to honor our parents, to go to church every Sunday to learn more about Jesus Christ. That was just normal. I didn’t think there was any other way. I was fortunate, my mother was a good Christian. When I think of her, I often remember her sitting late in the evening reading her Bible, every day,” Aunt Helen reminisced. Despite being in the rural south during one of the greatest depressions in history, Aunt Helen maintained that she “didn’t realize” it was as bad as it was. “The depression taught us a lot… to appreciate what we had. If I didn’t have it, I didn’t worry about it!” The grandmother and great-grandmother is full of many memorable one-liners.
After graduating high school, Aunt Helen ventured to the now-defunct Pineland Community College in Sampson County. Her oldest sister, who worked as a teacher in Bladen, helped her finance her education. “I was so grateful,” Aunt Helen said. She took classes in accounting, bookkeeping and typing. Those were popular skills for women in the late 1930s and early 1940s as the men were being shipped off to Europe for yet another war and women were entering the workforce here at home. And soon, Aunt Helen shipped herself northward to Washington D.C. to see what opportunities our nation’s capital had for her.
In D.C., the first job she had was working for a law firm in the National Press Building. Wanting more challenges, she then applied for civil service and worked with federal public housing. Then one day, she received an opportunity that was her most challenging to date… working on Capitol Hill at the brink of World War II. “I was at the senate office building for lunch one day with a friend. The senator she worked for asked me if I would want to work for him as well. I thought about it for about a week and gave it a try.” She continued, “I worked for Senator Eugene Milliken of Colorado… a republican,” she stressed.
Aunt Helen, who admittedly, should have kept a calendar and diary when she worked in Washington D.C., said working on Capitol Hill was tense, but she still had many memorable experiences like meeting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were “friendly and charming.” However, some things Helen wasn’t quite willing to divulge about her life in politics. “I had a lot of funny experiences. I can’t tell you all of them. They were just crazy!” she laughed.
After her tenure in the Federal City, Aunt Helen came back to Bladen County to care for her family and worked for the Bridge Corporation as a cotton and peanut buyer and a bookkeeper among other duties. Still, Washington D.C. came calling again. “I don’t know how the Senator got the phone number, but he wanted me to come work for him once more,” she said. Her boss overheard the conversation and offered her a slight raise to stay put in Bladen… but not too much. “My boss told me that if he gave me an equal pay raise, the men wouldn’t have it and they would all quit. I told him I knew that and it was a ridiculous thing, but I understood.” Instead, Aunt Helen’s boss gave her cash under the table which she promptly put in her son’s savings account for medical school. Though her late son, Tom, was only 13 at the time, he did end up going to medical school and served as the medical director at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro. Her younger son, Bill, is a U.S. Navy veteran and retired FBI agent. Obviously, bravery and smarts run in the family.
In 1957, Aunt Helen left Bladen County once again for Idaho. She had friends in the western state. “They talked me into coming there.” Aunt Helen had a case of Manifest Destiny and life in the wild blue yonder.
Living in Weiser, Idaho, Aunt Helen met famed folk musician and World War I pilot, Blaine Stubblefield whose fiddle music is housed in the Library of Congress. He went to be with our Lord in 1960 and left Aunt Helen to run his white water rafting business on the treacherous Snake River. “I remember going on week-long excursions on the river, through Hell’s Canyon, which was very dangerous. I would cook T-Bone steaks every night for our customers,” she said. Always taking care of others, Aunt Helen also served as the leader of the Weiser, Idaho Chamber of Commerce. Her son, Bill and his family still live in Idaho and continue to enjoy the outdoor lifestyle Aunt Helen inspired.
After a 30 year stay in Idaho, Aunt Helen ventured back to North Carolina to live with her sister in Fayetteville in the late 1980s until her death in 1995. “I sure miss her,” said Aunt Helen. After living alone a few more years and joining her beloved Emmanuel Baptist Church where she currently serves as a Sunday School teacher, she moved in with her niece Suzanne in 2003. Once again, it was like being back in a big family with her niece, husband Bill and their four children, Wheeler, Si, Celia and Ruby. “They all seem like my grandchildren,” she said. “Ruby is so special. Celia is too. Beautiful girls. The boys are wonderful too!” She continued, “Bill… he’s a fine person. And well, Suzanne, there’s just no one quite like her.”
Aunt Helen bakes brownies “with regularity,” all of the birthday cakes for the family and every Christmas, concocts her famed Fruit Cake Cookies. “One of the most rewarding things is baking those cookies because everyone loves them and wants them.”
Aunt Helen enjoys her church tremendously. Her favorite book is the Bible and historical novels are a close second, though her favorite time of history is now.
And she’s not done yet.
“I’m interested in everything. I started a book and I haven’t finished yet. I need a new ribbon for my typewriter. My son is so disappointed in me because i haven’t gotten a computer yet… I still want to learn.” She maintained that in our society, we need to count our blessings and we have many, many opportunities in which to take advantage. Tidbits of wisdom in which we should all take heed.
And she’s not done yet.
“I always thought when i reached a certain age that pleasures were really limited and now i find there is so much pleasure in living. Every single day, I wake up and I look to the Lord and I say ‘Thank You’ because I am still here.”