Memories. Memories. Memories. Helen Pray, soon to celebrate her 100th birthday, has nearly a century of recollections.
Memories. Memories. Memories.
Helen Pray, soon to celebrate her 100th birthday, has nearly a century of recollections she enjoys sharing with her friends at The Groves – her home since 2009.
Friends and acquaintances are invited to join the family from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Sept. 22 to celebrate Helen’s milestone birthday in the Community Room of the White Oak Living Center in Independence.
Chatting with Helen this week in her cozy apartment, the Indiana native told me right off the bat that her twin brother, James, was born Sept. 25, 1912, one minute after she came into the world, and lived to be 73.
“We were kind of an oddity in the whole area for miles around,” Helen says from her wheelchair, recalling strangers came knocking on the door of her Fort Wayne home, asking to take a look at the twins.
The arrival of Helen and James, though, didn’t set well with older sister Mary, who was no longer the center of attention.
“She was just 15 months older than me and she had her nose out of joint when the twins came,” Helen recalls. “We got in the way. We stole her thunder.”
Early school days were anything but fond ones for Helen. She despised kindergarten and often feigned sickness, resulting in her being sent home, accompanied by Mary, who then walked back to Lakeside School.
“And as soon as I got home, I had a ball,” she laughingly recalls. “I had my dolls out playing with them. That was much more fun.”
A lot more fun, she says, than having to climb up a tall, slim pole in the gymnasium later on in her schooling.
“My brother could go up it but I could never climb it,” says Helen, who often pondered why climbing a pole was so important. Her conclusion: “I don’t know.”
When I kiddingly implied she was probably at the top of her high-school class at St. Augustine’s Academy, she replies: “Oh, no. I don’t know where I was in the class – probably midway.”
Then she laughingly recalls how she hid behind a heavy-set girl sitting in front of her in class to prevent her teacher from seeing her and asking her questions.
“I don’t know why,” she says, “but I was scared to death of the nuns dressed in those habits.”
The strict nuns may have frightened Helen, but not enough to keep the timid student from telling her teacher – face to face – why she didn’t like her history class.
While her teacher was handing out report cards, she startled Helen by asking why she didn’t like history. And with no one to hide behind, Helen spoke her heart intrepidly:
“I like history; I like to know why the Battle of Bull Run was fought. Not just that it was fought on such and such a date. That doesn’t mean anything (to me.)”
“Well, you have a point there,” her somewhat-surprised teacher replied.
After graduating from high school in 1930, Helen and her sister found employment at the Wayne Knitting Mill, inspecting, boxing and labeling women’s hosiery manufactured there. Helen worked there 15 years.
Soon after leaving the mill, she and Jack Pray met at a dance. Following a courtship of some three to four years, Jack proposed and a wedding ensued in a tiny makeshift church that shared the same building with a venetian blind manufacturer.
Her marriage to Jack, who became a full-time pastor of the then- RLDS Church (now Community of Christ), and their daughters, Sharon Muir of Rochester Hills, Mich., and Jackie Wolk of Duluth, Ga., have been her happiest memories.
As for her disappointments, Helen thought for a moment, before replying: “Gee, I didn’t have very many of those. I never aspired to anything. I sort of took things as they came along.”
One of the things that came along was her childhood dream of someday becoming a beautiful ballerina.
“I wanted to be a ballet dancer,” she says, “because I saw pictures of these toe dancers, and I thought (being one) was the height of my ambitions at that time.”
Helen, though, never owned a pair of ballerina shoes nor took ballet lessons. And to this day, she has no regrets. “Not even one.”
Except for not becoming a ballerina, “I think I have done more than I ever expected,” she says, especially teaching women’s classes at church camps while her husband was in the ministry.
Knowing she had never taught anybody anything in her life, Helen accepted the teaching challenge after friends convinced her she could do the job.
“So when it came time to go to the church reunion, I put my brains in a box and picked up all the Sunshine magazines and everything I could think of that might be helpful,” she recalls, then adds: “I didn’t have time to prepare, you know, because things hit me like a bolt out of the blue. Anyway, I went to the class and I really enjoyed it. I had a real good time.”
As the questioning got around to the Great Depression, Helen says her family never felt its consequences like so many Americans did.
“My father was a gardener and we had all kinds of fruits (and vegetables) you could think of. And my mother canned, so we had food all year around,” which was shared with the down-and-out who came begging, she said.
There were devastating times. However, nothing was more devastating to Helen than when her 47-year-old husband succumbed to cancer in 1960.
Following his death, Helen moved from Midland, Mich., to Independence, where she lived for 36 years. After retiring at 83 from Resthaven, which eventually evolved into The Groves, she moved to Georgia to live with her daughter, son-in-law and only grandchild, Benjamin Wolk. Helen returned to Independence to live in 2009.
When Helen retired as a receptionist and jack of all trades, she was older than 75 percent of the nursing home’s residents.
Reflecting on her 25 years of service at Resthaven, Helen remembers that when Homer Spires was administrator, “We had a sewing machine and we made all kinds of gowns, diapers, bed pads, and did all kinds of sewing.
“When we weren’t answering the telephone or talking to someone (in the office), we were sewing.”
The soon-to-be-centenarian doesn’t sew anymore. Instead, she spends her time reading The Examiner from cover to cover, watching her favorite TV shows, playing bingo and computer games and enjoying the antics of birds and squirrels from her first-floor apartment.