Helen Russell, the oldest member of Haiku Northwest, and also the oldest member of the Haiku Society of America, passed away January 10, 2011. She was 101 years old. Helen was deeply passionate about attending haiku meetings, and dearly missed the group when she couldn’t attend. She had started the Mondays at Three haiku group on Vashon Island, Washington, and after she moved to Issaquah in 2000 (she was my nearest haiku neighbour), she was glad to start attending the Haiku Northwest meetings in Bellevue. She maintained such a clear voice in her haiku too—her poems were distinctly hers, projecting honesty, acceptance of her life experiences, and a fine mix of clarity and implication. It didn’t surprise any of us when her 2008 chapbook, Distant Sounds, won a special Merit Book Award in the Haiku Society of America’s annual Kanterman Awards. And Helen was refreshingly independent. I remember one haiku meeting while we were discussing someone else’s haiku. She silently rose to her feet, positioned her walker for herself, and then slowly shuffled fifteen feet away to close the meeting room door, and then shuffled slowly back. She was perfectly fine doing that for herself rather than asking other people to do it for her, even though they could have done it quicker and more easily (I was sitting right beside her, and felt a pang of guilt once I realized that all she wanted to do was to close the door so she could hear better). That simple act of independence and determination crystallized my perception of Helen—she wasn’t going to let her advanced age make her a burden on anyone. She was perfectly capable of helping herself, and she was always mentally and emotionally sharp with her poems and comments.
She even retained the capacity to learn, to accept comments and criticism to help her improve her poems. However, when I last talked with Helen on the phone, about three weeks before she died, I could tell that the fire was gone. Somehow she’d lost that spark, that energy and engagement she’d always had before. She said she hadn’t been writing lately, and that she didn’t think she could make it to another meeting. I felt very sad, and I could tell she felt sad too. She was resigned to this fact, though, realizing the truth, that she was not long for this world. The last thing she said to me was to tell the haiku group that she loved us all.
I learned of Helen’s passing from her Vashon haiku friend Ann Spiers. Ann explained that Helen’s last act, literally moments before she died, was to write a haiku, about moving the furniture in her new hospice room to watch the snow falling outside. That sort of determination marked her entire life—a determination not just to rearrange the furniture to her liking, but to record that moment in a poem. Helen’s long life was one filled with more moments than most of us will ever have, and we can be grateful that she recorded some of them in haiku.
rain again . . .
the moon brightens
the cloud’s other side