Helen Ledgerwood Davis
Helen Ledgerwood Davis
August 25, 1903 – December 11, 2002
It was asked rhetorically in the company of President Eisenhower, “Who would ever want to live to 100?” Ike answered, “I suppose someone who is 99.” As if it was obvious that the will to live was that strong. We credit many factors for a long life: choosing the right parents, eating the right foods, having the right temperament, taking our medicine, and living a purposeful life. But there is another ingredient necessary, a quality of character Helen/Nana/Mom had in great measure. Barbara would return from her visits to Hi-Lo Shores in recent months filled with wonder about her mother. One word Barbara repeated to describe Helen’s life as she closed in on a century: courage.
Who would want to live to 100? It’s not for the faint at heart. It’s not for those who cannot cope with loss. It’s for those who have the courage to be. That’s Helen, the courage to be, which would make a wonderful book title, except that it has already been used.
Courage… and a self-deprecating sense of humor. The ability which escapes most of us as we drift into old age, to see ourselves objectively, as from the outside, knowing as Helen never forgot that her needs, however compelling, should be seen as just one star in the firmament of everyone else’s needs. So she would laugh when faced with the physical insults which accumulated with the years. Barbara reports that when Helen was being admitted to Eastern L I Hospital the afternoon before her passing, she was not strong enough to speak, but, recognizing what was taking place, and not particularly liking it or the inconvenience she was causing others, she squinched in mock exasperation, as she was wont to do a hundred times before when her body couldn’t keep up with her own indomitable will.
Thursday morning after the news of Helen’s death had been sent far and wide I received an Email message from her niece on the shore of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Elinor Lindberg saluted Helen for her graciousness and her artistry. She also remembered her waste-not-want-not principle, born, I suspect, from a childhood in a family with little enough means, a bias accentuated by her later years as the wife of a preacher during the Depression. The sheets in the cabin in Vermont have patches on patches. She kept everything, made do. But what always impressed me is that having saved everything she could tell you quickly exactly where, for instance, you can find string for wrapping the garbage, in the top drawer left of the old ice box become cabinet, hand painted, of course with decorative flowers. Your grandmother, Beth, was an environmentalist long before anyone coined that term. Besides, she belonged to the Sierra Club and climbed mountains!
Helen was seated at the table in the kitchen when her body said it was time to go. The same kitchen where twenty years minus one earlier her soulmate and beloved life’s partner took his leave of us. Thank God and Helen’s children that they acceded, sometimes against their better judgment, to having Mom spend her last years in her and her husband’s dreamhouse. Where every corner is filled with happy memories and artifacts of a marriage blessed in heaven and made with abundant love on earth. Where Lewis’ (that’s Helen’s preferred name, or “Hon” as in “Honey” for the man who told me to call him “Dub,” Barbara, Don, and Eleanor’s Dad) handiwork can be seen in furniture gleaned from family homesteads or redeemed from neighbors’ trash piles. Where Helen’s own artistic excellence in half a dozen different mediums make the home more interesting certainly than the one we saw on a recent trip to England, the one belonging to designer William Morris.
Helen has slipped away from us… for a date with a fellow who once was a seminarian in New York City, now in the Father’s House with many rooms. Until we arrive there and join in sweet communion with “those whom we have loved a lost awhile,” we, the family especially, but many friends too, will not be without our reminders of the courageous, beautiful, and gifted woman recently among us. The walls of our homes are warmer and more welcoming for the paintings and etchings she created. The tops of our cabinets and tables and dressers and window sills are covered with her ceramics and weavings. We shall very carefully ration the notepaper stock in our desk drawers, the etchings of scenes of winter, summer, fall, and spring, drawn from her kitchen window, each one with a small stylized HLD on the bottom. We shall hear a tune on a CD, as Barbara did a week ago on our trip to Galilee for clams, and remark, “Mom and Dad played that piece as a duet, he on the violin, she on the piano.” Our lives and our days are resplendent with things and occasions to remember just how lucky we were by Helen.
You do remember, family, don’t you?, what Helen would say when kidded about remarriage: when you’ve had the best you don’t settle for anything less. Surely Helen and her Lewis now share a mansion, a more stately mansion, with a view of the sea and, hopefully, plenty of outcroppings of rock for Helen to study intensely with her artistic eye, as she did for hours on end in Vermont.
Whatever the prospect of that place they share, know that their love for each other, embraced by the love of God is a love that continues to hold you, family and friends, in God’s good grace.
If, God, we go to you in our need and sorrow, sometimes, and this is one of them, we go to you with grateful hearts, sad for our loss, to be sure, but sufficiently aware of the necessities of our mortality to understand full-well just how blessed we are by Helen. She brought beauty and sweetness into our lives and made this world, your world, a kinder place to be. We thank you for the length, the great length of her years, to create with her hands and eyes and heart things of beauty. We thank you for the countless ways in which she graced our lives, thinking especially of her gift of life to three children and through them two succeeding generations, all of them people of attainment and, more important, a graciousness of character.
On Helen’s behalf we thank you for supplying her with strength of body and mind, this California girl who found her true love on the other coast. When times were hard, she overmatched them with the patience and courage you provided. When life was good and the sun shone wherever she went, she did not forget where she had been and that where she was, in a good place, was your blessing. More than anything else, she would want us to thank you for providing her with a dear life’s companion, her Lewis, with whom she shared life and love and everything else for golden years.
Finally we thank you for your providence in these years since her soulmate made his way to your storied mansions. That providence, made real in the hands and hearts of children, neighbors, and home companions, enabled her to go on and find a purpose for her life in the creation of hope chests and weavings and ceramics and watercolors.
Receive her into your house with many rooms. Welcome her into the communion of saints, with a place close to her Lewis. Give her to see the light and colors of heavenly glory with a brightness earth never possessed. And, when it is our time to make the journey from here to there, please, God, alert her to our arrival that together we may share your love and life forever. Amen.
A VERBAL QUILT
The life of
Helen L. Davis
Around Shelter Island, our mom was known as such a sweet demure and talented woman with the name of Helen.
She has other names too - Mrs. Davis, Honey, Mom, Nana, and last but not least, Nana Banana from Shelter Island.
Sweet and demure - yes, but also AMAZING and ADVENTUROUS.
We, her children, have assembled a verbal quilt of her life.
She liked to call herself a California girl and that she was.
Grew up in South Pasadena
Graduated with an art major from UCLA
Stayed on to teach in the art department, but also:
Helped support her younger siblings
Hiked the Sierra Mountains
Danced the Charleston and Two Step ‘til dawn.
She chose Columbia Teacher's College in New York City for a master's program. She was well along in her studies when she was blind-sided by a blind date with Lew Davis - a Methodist minister.
After a time, he proposed, but with an interesting option:
1. “Let’s get married and we'll sail away on a seven month cruise from Long Island to the West Indies.”
2. “Finish your degree and I'll see you in seven months”
Needless to say, she chose number one and became a bride as well as a first mate on an amazing adventure!
Set sail from Greenport, N.Y. in 1932.
Caught in a five day gale.
Newspapers reported them lost at sea.
Visited numerous islands
Ended up shipwrecked on a coral reef off Cuba on their return trip.
Had to abandon the boat to begin the next part of their lives.
Mom became a minister's wife with a total of eight pastorates (and parsonages) in New York and Connecticut, (WOW- was that a summary!), and a mother of three - Barbara, Don and Eleanor. She was a cook, cleaner, mender, knitter,
and seamstress of everything from baby clothes to prom gowns and bridal dresses.
Augusts found/find us in Vermont enjoying the cabin she designed and Dad built in 1940. She turned trash furniture into treasures with her decorative and whimsical patterns.
In 1962 when I, the youngest, was a senior in college and she and Dad could see the end of tuition payments, she completed her master's degree at Columbia.
Thirty five years ago they retired to Shelter Island where they built their dream home - one which she could decorate to her own taste. They bought and fixed up an old sailboat and they took most of the Power Squadron Courses (Mom even took Celestial Navigation and Engine Maintenance).
Retirement brought time in indulge in Mom's favorite things;
Painting and drawing the beautiful scenes from their windows
Decorating hope chests for family members - 18 in all!
In recent years floral drawings have been her focus. Her dear care givers Carol Gray and Emily Hallman put a vase of flowers in front of her. She'd marvel at the beauty, colors, shapes, shadows and textures, and out would come the color pencils.
As Mom weakened in recent weeks, she maintained her sense of humor. A week ago she fell. As she sat on the floor dejected but unhurt, she asked Emily, “Would you hire someone to swear for me?”
It’s strange how things come full circle. Helen and Lew set sail for their honeymoon cruise from Greenport, and they both left this earthly life from Greenport.
Our Mom, Nana, Great Nana, Nana Banana From Shelter Island - sweet and demure -yes but also amazing and adventurous in living a 99 year life in such a positive, creative and loving way.
We'll miss you Mom.
Eleanor Davis Tener
The Living Legacy of Helen Davis
Remarks by Beth Tener, her granddaughter, at her memorial service
Today I would like to share reflections on Helen (Nana as we called her) from the voice of one of her eight grandchildren. She was an inspiration to each of us and I see her living on in her grandchildren.
Her spirit of adventure and boldness to travel far from home when she moved from California to New York for graduate school and when she took up Lewis’ offer to sail to the Caribbean on that great adventure inspired many of us to travel and live abroad:
Sharon who backpacked all over Asia and Australia/New Zealand and then lived in Japan for two years.
Steve who lived and worked in Japan
Betsy who lived in Bolivia
Her devotion to family and her qualities as a loving mother can be seen mirrored in her granddaughters Gwen, Betsy, Susie, and Kathy who all are wonderful caring dedicated mothers.
Her knack for telling stories, remembering details from decades ago, is being carried forth by Janet who has developed a passion for storytelling and participates in gatherings of storytellers.
Her appreciation of nature, illustrated in the joy she took in watching hummingbirds zoom around the porch at the Vermont cabin, hours spent drawing flowers, and enjoying the beauty in the Shelter Island landscape…is alive in me with my passion for the outdoors and in my work in the environmental field.
Her artistic talents and ability to see the world with an artist’s eye is carried forth in Betsy and Kathy who have pursued art and creativity in many forms.
We all admired so much about Nana. I would like to close with a quality I admired most, particularly as I spent time with her in later years. This is a quality I feel we can all learn from. My sister described it as ‘gentle serenity.’
Nana was one of the happiest, peaceful people I knew. She lived life fully, uncomplaining, in each day with what she had. As her body grew older and she was less mobile, she still arose with purpose each day…to draw, to create. The creative spirit that moved through her was so strong.
I recall in Vermont when everyone around her was busy making plans for the next meal, trips to Lake Fairlee, what to do that day…we would ask Nana what she was going to do and she replied “I am going to sit here and watch the clouds go by.” She would sit watching the view, simply content in observing the beauty around her. She would describe to me how that cloud is made with a flat edge brush and what colors from her palette she would pick to capture the shade of green we saw on a distant hillside.
I spoke of how I see Nana reflected in her eight grandchildren. Here today are seven of her nine great grandchildren who were so blessed to know their great grandmother for so many years.
No doubt her legacy will live in them
We love you Nana.