Obituary of Helen Opie
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As Independently as Ever, on Dec 23, Helen Opie (Helen Opie Ryan, Helen Opie Brigham) has departed, for what she called her "Next Grand Adventure". Born May 28, 1933, Oxford, England; Formerly from Mader's Cove, NS, and St. Stephen NB, among other places, where she always loved to paint. Stories, Pictures, Thoughts, Lessons, Learnings and Memories are most welcome here or on her own Facebook page. Covid Allowing, we will gather on May 28th, 2022, in the Granville Ferry/ Annapolis Royal, NS area, to share our experiences, memories, and stories of Helen. Thank you all for your support through the experience this has been, and will be, for both, for all of us. Here she is on her last (truly) Birthday, turning 88, in 2021. Helen Opie, 1933-2021 If you knew Helen Opie, you will understand, even expect, that this will not be a traditional, linear, serious Resume of a Life. There may not be a chronology, and there may well be tense, person and other grammatical shifts, jumps, Random Capitalization (she spoke some German as a child, ’til it became, shall we say, politically incorrect, being Britain in the early 40s, and her parents being peace and social justice activists, and all that) and beloved non-sequiturs. My mother was a Golden Retriever: everyplace was her favourite place. She loved going for car rides and looking out the window. She loved meeting new people, exploring things as simple as an unknown dirt road, a new beach, someone’s local art gallery or workshop, a roadside kitschy yard-art collection. But also, staying home, gardening, planning gardens; painting; building, or planning building projects; or looking at her world out her windows – especially lately – were her favourite things. Helen Opie – no middle name, as she was expected to use Opie as her middle name when she married, even though her own mother had a middle name – was born May 28, 1933, at 33 Pullen Lane, Oxford, England, where, as it turned out, the doorknobs really were higher than usual; it was not just her age or size or own brain quirks that made her remember them that way. When she was 7, the school had practice for air raids, as WW2 had begun. She was taught to curl up under her school desk, which probably gave a sense of safety, of order, of doing something, and of keeping people calm, much as when in early COVID-19 days we were told to wash all our groceries. With a father, Redvers Opie, who taught Economics at Oxford and was then seconded into the British Embassy, she was born into the cocktail party and sailing club world. She loved sailing, loved it enough to build her own plywood ‘Puddle Duck Racer’ sailboat to sail up the Annapolis River to Paradise, (which she never quite reached, but had fun in the process – see SaltScapes for more on that Grand Adventure); but she soon left that 1950s social world, and started homesteading with my father in the 1950s, before ‘Back to the Land’ was a thing, even before Hippies were a thing, but after dinosaurs had stopped being a thing. She started learning about and practising nutrition and organic gardening. She ground the wheat to make the bread to hold the butter she had churned, and the honey from the bees she kept, or the mayonnaise she had mixed with the eggs from the chickens she kept, for the lettuce she had grown and likewise, the turkeys and rabbits, the yogourt she made from the milk which she bartered for, from whomever had the cow. She never let go of those values, goals, and ideals, not even one little bit, for the next 60ish years; but rather strengthened and added to her repertoire of remedies for which she was an educator, writer, and, yay and verily, a nutritional evangelist, sharing her beliefs with everyone who would – or who had to – listen. This was rather ironic, because as a Quaker, and as a non-Christian; as a child of Jewish grandparents (things are murky here; she might have been technically Jewish, despite random use of her grandmother’s sets of kosher dishes); and as herself, she was very much against proselytizing, very much for the personal nature of freedom of choice. Ironically, the father of her offspring became a hard-core, born-again evangelical Christian, after a number of affairs. Nutrition was her religion, and Adele Davis a prophet. “Religion,” said Helen’s mother, Catharine Crombie (Taussig) Opie, “is fine, for those who need it.” Helen seems to have had a 15-year itch. She would design a well-insulated, energy-efficient house, or a studio, and build it, with varying levels of help from old friends, their kids, the kids’ friends, draft dodgers, refugees, her own and various foster kids and adults and husbands, and neighbours and new friends. Then she would move on, for one reason or another, in search of, building, or tracking a better life; a ‘better’, more accepting, sociable art community, where she could be her own quirky self, and still sell enough art and teach enough workshops to get by. St. Stephen, New Brunswick, saw the creation of Soupstone Farm, with a U-Pick blueberry operation, several years of writing a garden column for the newspaper, and hoping to someday combine them into a book, which may yet happen. In a less-than-open-minded small coastal community not too far away from St. Stephen, and perhaps best known for people who threw rocks, she bought a wee old house as a painting retreat, which became home when she left her last husband; again, choosing mental health over comforts and social acceptance. She held and lived by her convictions, regardless of what the neighbours might think, regardless of how uncommon and challenging it was to be “a divorcée” in the 1950s, and a single parent in the 1960s who believed that a teacher should not have to sleep with her boss to get hired. Some years she rented summer houses during the winter and lived in canvas tents in people’s fields for the summer; it seemed normal to her offspring, who grew up living under canvas and cooking outdoors while building houses and workshops. From NB, Helen came to the South Shore of NS, bringing a U-Haul truck across on the Digby- Saint John Ferry to Mader’s Cove, where she “put a house onto an addition”: turning a 2-car garage into a wee house, and adding a studio three times as big, and always with some fairly new energy technology; hot-water, in-floor heating in this case. She’d had enough years of hardware store men thinking she needed information, permission, or an accuracy check from her husband. There was a certain irony, in her last few weeks, of her “mansplaining” health care matters to paramedics, nurses, and probably doctors. She had strong words and dismissiveness for the professionals, decades back, who said she had heart or thyroid troubles, and needed drugs to stay alive; she was doing just fine with her remedies, regimes, and rituals, thank you very much. She was consistent in these matters, despite perhaps seeming unpredictable in other aspects of life, like swimming along and across tidal rivers, well past her 70s. When she was 50, she got her motorcycle licence (for what was more like a moped, bought so they could get to town to get parts for the car!), got her ears pierced, and (gasp!) stopped making her own pie crust! She probably used to even render the lard for it. She very much lived according to her beliefs: wholesomeness, generosity, friendliness, community, responsibility, life-long education, work-life balance, and colour. Helen Opie Questioned Authority. She suffered no fools, and as a child, as is so often the case for us ADHD types, she had no verbal censor and would say things to the effect of the Emperor having No Clothes on. Helen believed “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly”, meaning you don’t have to be an expert or a professional or even trained or good at something: if you like to do it, just do it. She believed in DCI – Divine Central Intelligence; the opposite of Murphy’s Law: that which makes the right things happen at the right time. And if in doubt, she would often dowse for things; she was much better at finding and re-routing water veins than she was, self-admittedly, at finding lost objects. But that didn’t stop her from trying! She believed in simplicity and in peace. She put her money where her mouth was on that one, choosing, as many others of her mindset, whether Quaker or not did, to live below the poverty line, to avoid paying taxes to governments that acted against her beliefs. ‘Til her last day, she lived by her convictions, even if some had become factually muddled, due to the confusions that are part of congestive heart failure. Helen liked the 11-times table – 11, 22, …66. 77. 88. It was suitable she lived til 88; she was very excited about it, it was such a nice number, even though she was convinced she would live to 103 (to the year 2036!). She liked “nice numbers”, which were usually based on multiplication. Oh, she was an elementary-school teacher, and an adult teacher, of art, in so many forms. She silk-screened, studied stained glass for a semester, and more drawing, despite her BFA. Water colours, oil paints, for the richness and workability – until she realized the solvents were a problem, and then again with renewed gusto when non-petroleum ones came around; acrylics, for their portability and quick drying; oil pastels for the tactile-ness; pastels for their own characteristics; encaustics for their depth; charcoal, and pencils and sidewalk chalk, and … what other art media are there? In her last several months, she was coming to terms with the idea that ‘the ADHD shoe fit her very well’, and realized there would always be places she wanted to paint, to explore, to adventure, and there would always be more than a lifetime’s worth of pleasures and adventures to be had, even after having gone to Turkey with a friend at 16, in 1949; bicycling around the Cabot Trail; and spending 3 weeks on the educational tall ship Picton Castle whilst in her 70s and making one of her many sketch-journals from it. But she always needed her lists, her clipboards, and her other strategies to keep herself organized. She was smart, very smart, and adapted to her inherited, but undiagnosed, learning disabilities and to her neurodiversity quite well, always being herself, and to her own self being true. She loved reading aloud, and used it as incentive to get other people to do dishes. She was very good at “Structuring the Situation to Achieve the Desired Results”, as well as at giving reasonable choices and relevant consequences and opportunities to learn from. Art, Colour, Folk Songs, Joy, Simple Gifts, and Good Food, these are the things that Helen Opie was made of, along with Courage, Conviction, a big smile, and a much more outgoing, expressive, non-conforming manner than her Victorian-born parents might have thought seemly, despite their generally open thinking and beliefs in their girls being educated. In her last few days, while in the hospital, she insisted on only drinking water (which she believed, with only slight deception, actually was from home), and only from a Mason jar. During a routine personal care moment involving a number of hospital staff, her drinking jar was knocked from her table to the floor, with a clank and a splash. “Oh, shit!”, says the increasingly frail looking, seemingly little old lady with a ready grin, in her hand-spun, hand-knit, silk and wool alizarin crimson Nepalese hat with the chin braids and tassel and her ancient sea-green lambswool sweater, surrounded by a stuffed lioness wearing an African beaded love letter, an 83 year threadbare stuffed cat that surely became ‘Real’ decades ago, and a contrasting new fluffy white bear, quite shocking all the staff, and joining everyone in earshot in a good bout of laughter. Helen knew so many people, and eventually came to believe they did actually like her, that they weren’t just being polite. So many people have said how much she impressed, amazed, influenced, and inspired them. We often say it’s a shame people don’t say or know these things in life. But Helen did. She has a stack of Index cards from her 80th birthday, on which guests finished sentences such as “I remember when Helen…” or “From knowing Helen, I learned…” or “Helen reminds me…”. To continue the tradition, we invite you to share a story, to finish one of the sentences, or to start your own, so we may each know more about the force of nature that was Helen (no middle name) Opie, as she was seen through the lens of another person’s experience. Everyplace was Helen’s favourite place, every place she wanted to paint, or explore, so to that end, we hope to send her ashes to all quarters, all directions, to many places; on sun and sand and sea and stone, so she can be everywhere, and with everyone, doing everything, including relaxing, all the time. I shared this idea with her, once she realized and accepted that she was dying, and she agreed that, since she had been scattered in life, she might as well be scattered after life, as she goes on to her Next Great Adventure. Direct donations in Helen’s memory to women’s shelters, library & art programs, community gardens
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