Helli Stehle

A life well-lived

“heirloom tomato” is 11×14, painted with sumi ink and Japanese watercolors on paper. It is available as a  greeting card  reading, “may you find life so sweet and juicy it drips off your elbows.” © Annette Makino 2016

“heirloom tomato” is 11×14, painted with sumi ink and Japanese watercolors on paper. It is available as a greeting card reading, “may you find life so sweet and juicy it drips off your elbows.” © Annette Makino 2016

My pioneering great-aunt, Helli Stehle, died in Basel, Switzerland this past Sunday at age 109. As I described in “A trail-blazing woman” last November, she was a well-known stage actor who then became Switzerland’s first female newscaster, serving as a mentor and role model to many younger journalists.

She was a spirited, smart and funny woman, generous and deeply loyal to her extended family. We miss her already. But what a full life she got to lead!

The end of her reign as Switzerland’s oldest living citizen has made me think anew about the trials and rewards of aging. At 54, I am encountering many unexpected details of getting older. For instance, who knew that you could get wrinkles on your earlobes? Or down the bridge of your nose?

I used to have such sharp hearing that I would often hear other people talking about me (typically speculating on my ethnic background; sometimes just wondering where I got my ice cream cone). But when I wash dishes these days, I have to remind my kids,“I can’t hear what you’re saying when the faucet is running,” just as my exasperated mother repeatedly told my sisters and me.

At the same time, what freedom comes with age! Freedom from caring what other people think of me; from trying to meet external measures of success; from judgment about myself or others. As a result, I am taking more risks and trying new things.

Earlier this year, I joined five other women in my choir to perform a hip hop dance during a concert for about 800 people. Even though the choreography did not involve spinning on our heads or landing in a split, it was a real physical and mental stretch to learn. But what fun to perform a dance for the first time since I was 17—and to find it was still possible!

In 2008, a few months after Helli Stehle’s 100th birthday, the Basler Beobachter ran a feature about her pioneering role in Swiss radio.

In 2008, a few months after Helli Stehle’s 100th birthday, the Basler Beobachter ran a feature about her pioneering role in Swiss radio.

Overall, I find a richness and ease in these so-called “golden years” worth far more than a flat belly and the ability to remember names. I wouldn’t choose to go back even one year. And considering I am less than half of Helli’s age when she died, who knows what adventures still lie ahead. I owe it to her to find out!

heirloom tomato
finally comfortable
in my own skin

Makino Studios News

Free shipping for Labor Day weekend: Get free shipping on any US order of $5 or more in my Etsy shop with code LABOR17. Sale runs Saturday through Monday, September 2-4.

New cards: I have five new card designs coming off the press tomorrow! You can check them out in the MakinoStudios Etsy shop. Choose any six designs for $19.99 plus tax and shipping.

2018 calendars: For the fifth year in a row, I’ve designed a mini-calendar of art and haiku. This year’s features local landscapes, dogs, cats and flowers, and I think it’s my best yet! It’s currently being printed and will be available starting in mid-September.

Food Art Show Reception: As part of Local Food Month, the Humboldt Food Policy Council is hosting a Food Art Show. Stop by the Redwood Arts Association Gallery in Eureka (603 F Street) through September to enjoy the food-inspired paintings and drawings of over a dozen local artists, myself included. An artists’ reception will be held during Arts Alive! this Saturday, September 2, from 6-9 p.m.

North Country Fair: Celebrate the fall equinox at the 44th annual North Country Fair in Arcata the weekend of Sept. 16-17! This festive event features 200 booths, live music on two stages, and two parades. I'll have the new cards and calendars at the Makino Studios booth on G Street near 9th.

Instagram et cetera: I am now on Instagram as annettemakino. Follow me as I figure out this newfangled platform that all the youngsters are into! You can also get news, fresh art and haiku on my Makino Studios Facebook page and my Twitter feed.

The haiku “heirloom tomato” was first published in Frogpond, Issue 40.2, Spring-Summer 2017.

A trail-blazing woman

“with age comes wisdom” is 11×14, painted with sumi ink and Japanese watercolors on paper. It is available as a  birthday card . © Annette Makino 2015

“with age comes wisdom” is 11×14, painted with sumi ink and Japanese watercolors on paper. It is available as a birthday card. © Annette Makino 2015

Today I mailed this “wise owl” card to my great-aunt for her 109th birthday. No, that is not a typo. Helene “Helli” Stehle was born to a butcher and his wife on December 6, 1907, in Basel, Switzerland.

But longevity is by no means the most remarkable thing about Helli. This pioneering woman first achieved fame in Switzerland as a stage actor playing strong characters. She has always been a vibrant, strong-willed woman with a great zest for life, so I can imagine how riveting her performances must have been.

She gradually began working in radio, performing and directing plays and reciting poetry for Basel’s state-run radio station, Radiostudio Basel. With the outbreak of World War II, all her male colleagues were called to active duty. So in 1939, Helli became Switzerland’s first female newscaster. She was soon widely known through the region; when she was out in public, strangers would recognize her by her voice.

She eventually became the chief newscaster and a mentor to many younger journalists. Meanwhile, she continued to act in and direct radio plays until her retirement in 1967. She is now Switzerland’s oldest living actor.

My great-aunt never married or had children—in those days, only single women were allowed to work in state jobs. But she had one great love, Otto Crone, a calm and quiet actor who grew up in Russia. He eventually moved into another apartment in Helli’s building; over their decades together, Helli learned to speak Russian.

When I was eight, my adventurous aunt joined my family as we travelled around Japan, soaking in the communal baths and sleeping on the floor in traditional inns. On train rides, she and I enjoyed many conversations in a secret, nonsensical language we made up called “Bochisch.” And she would perform comic vignettes for my sisters and me again and again on request.

Deep into retirement, she continued to travel. On one trip to Russia, her suitcase got lost on the flight over, and she gamely spent the week wearing shirts borrowed from the gentlemen in her group. She took gymnastics and Russian conversation classes well into her 90s, and had a circle of dear friends, many of them much younger.

In 1939, Helli Stehle became the first woman newscaster in Switzerland, for Radiostudio Basel. She is seen here in 1955.

In 1939, Helli Stehle became the first woman newscaster in Switzerland, for Radiostudio Basel. She is seen here in 1955.

When Helli turned 100, the Basel radio station threw a big party in her honor where she was warmly feted. A few months later, she finally moved into an assisted living home, but she gave an interview as recently as 2010, on the occasion of her 103rd birthday.

Back in 1999, when my grandmother turned 100, her birthday party was attended by a Basel city official. He joked with my grandmother that he would be back in five years for her 105th. Ever witty, her sister Helli replied to him, “Ah, but whether you will still be around…?”

My grandmother lived to a ripe old 104. Who would ever have thought that her little sister would beat that record by five years and counting?

However much longer my dear aunt Helli sticks around, she has inspired me and countless others through her example as a powerful, creative woman, forging her own path.

leaping waves
all the strong women
before me

warmly, Annette Makino

UPDATE: Helli Stehle died in Basel, Switzerland on August 27, 2017. She was 109.

Makino Studios News

Mother's sculpture show: My mom, Erika Makino, took up sculpture around age 80, and now, at 88, she is showing her clay and cement pieces in a solo exhibit. The show opens this Friday, Dec. 2 in Ukiah, California (details in this Ukiah Daily Journal article).

Free shipping through November: Use shipping code FREESHIP2016 for free shipping in the US through this Wednesday, November 30 on orders of $15 or more from the Makino Studios Etsy shop. There you will find my 2017 calendar, laser-engraved wooden keychains, holiday and everyday greeting cards and signed prints.

Arcata Holiday Crafts Market: My only public event of the holidays, this fair includes many local artists and craftspeople, plus music and food. It runs Saturday, Dec. 10, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 11, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Arcata Community Center, Arcata.

Pierson Made in Humboldt Fair: You can pick up my calendars, cards and prints at this fair of crafts and specialty foods handmade in Humboldt County. It runs through Dec. 24 at Pierson Garden Shop, 4100 Broadway Street, Eureka.