At Large In Ballard: Ordinary Extraordinary
By Peggy Sturdivant
Helen Dixon’s daughter Jan opened the door to me. “Somebody wants to interview mom,” I’d heard one sister call to another when I first set up our meeting.
“What do you want to know?” Helen Dixon asked me after we’d all introduced ourselves.
“Anything you’re willing to tell me,” I replied.
As far as Helen Dixon is concerned there has been an awful lot of fuss over her most recent birthday, with such a stream of visitors, “That by afternoon it was getting a bit tiresome.”
Helen Dixon is 100 years old. What’s so special about that? Still a neighbor has contacted the publisher, the publisher has contacted me, and her daughters have allowed me into the corner house just above Salmon Bay Park where the family has lived since 1948.
Daughter Judy Montgomery, visiting from her home in New Jersey, is the most inclined to tell tales. She and her sister were ages 5 and 7 when their father’s job brought the family to Seattle from Portland. Their younger brother Charles, now deceased, was born in Seattle, at Ballard Community Hospital. After a visit their dad took them to see “The Wizard of Oz” showing at the Bay Theater across the street.
The “girls” recalled what it was like to live across from the park; Ballard’s prime sledding hill before all the trees grew so large. They played kick-the-can and hide-and-seek with the growing number of neighborhood children. “We’d always get hurt,” Judy said, “and come wobbling home.” Her animated reminiscences involved Field House construction tunnels and fierce games of King of the Hill at the vacant lot at the corner. Judy speaks using her esophagus, engaging her tracheotomy tube. So that I could hear her clearly she’d perch just across from me. “We’d play and play. Then they built a house and ruined it.”
“I always knew where they were,” Helen said. “Especially when they had swings over there.”
The quieter sister, Jan Dixon, announced she had a tale on her sister. “Judy decided to run away. So she packed a lunch and walked around the block because she knew she’d get in trouble if she crossed the street to the park.”
Helen recalled her first job in Seattle, when she thought her kids were old enough. She worked the nightshift on the switchboard at Ballard Hospital. She would walk down after the kids were in bed. The police knew she was leaving the kids asleep and would keep an eye on the house for her.
Working as a receptionist into her 70’s for two doctors at Northwest, Helen was reluctant to retire, wondering what she’d do with herself. “Now I don’t understand how anyone could ever be bored.” She has always enjoyed gardening; in her own and her daughter’s in New Jersey.
Knowing that sometimes the most interesting people don’t “blow their own horn” I kept working hard to coax details about Helen’s life. A longtime member of Lion’s Club, Helen had enjoyed a birthday celebration with other members at Ray’s Boathouse, a place she likes to frequent for lunch. She gets out with Doris, a friend who dates back over 40 years to the bowling league days.
About to say goodbye I ask if Helen gets out to visit Judy in New Jersey much. “About twice a year,” she tells me. (I’m always somewhat surprised that airlines haven’t tried to impose age limits).
I learn that Jan and her mother take turns visiting Judy, especially during her last five years of surgeries and treatments for cancer.
“People are surprised that I travel by myself,” Helen told me. “It’s no problem. They take such good care of you. I usually take the 3:30 flight and get to Newark at 11:30.”
Talk turns to when a doctor and nurses were teaching Helen how to remove, clean and replace Judy’s tracheotomy tube, so that she could be safely released from a nursing facility. The supervisor wouldn’t sign off, claiming that at 98, Helen was too old.
“As if I’d harm my own daughter,” Helen said, still indignant.
“We were so angry,” Judy said. Ultimately a young woman who was supposed to be qualified got rattled and couldn’t change the tube. Helen had to take over.
Given’s Judy’s health problems I asked Helen been hospitalized other than for childbirth. They all looked at one another, like they shouldn’t confess. “Once,” Helen said, “Food poisoning.” Then the truth came out, involving nachos that looked tasty at a Mariner’s game. After three uncharacteristic sick days Jan took her mom to the hospital.
“When was this?” I asked, picturing the old Kingdome.
“Last June the 26th,” Jan said. “Against the Pittsburgh Pirates.”
When does a quietly ordinary life qualify as extraordinary?
Pretty much stunned into silence I took a few photos. Judy Montgomery unexpectedly took my notebook from me and then gave me a big hug. Jan Dixon followed suit. “We didn’t think Mom would go through with this.”
“Now hug her,” Judy said pointing at her mother. So of course I did. Then I let myself out the door they had opened to me just an hour earlier.