TREMONTON - Ellen Cook, Headliner Media Specialist, August 2, 2022
One of Helen Tanaka Yamasaki's favorite things to do is watch reruns of The Golden Girls with her granddaughter. At 101 years of age, she can relate to their antics. But she will tell you, she does not feel her age.
“I don’t know how I lived so long,” she said. “How did I even get here?”
“Here” is Our House Senior Living in Tremonton, where she has resided since March and where she celebrated being a centenarian plus one, in July. It was the staff there who instigated a ‘birthday by mail’ event to help their celebrity resident observe her milestone. They asked for 101 cards, notes and letters to match her age. What they got was well over 200 from family, friends and complete strangers located across the country. Some were signed, some were not, but all offered well wishes and happy thoughts for a life well-lived.
Helen will tell you she does not have much of a story to tell about that life. Oh, but she would be wrong.
Helen was born in the old Valley Hospital in Tremonton on July 24, to parents who only knew each other through a photograph. Her mother was a “picture bride” who arrived in Seattle from Japan, pledged to wed a man she had never met. The marriage had been arranged.
The couple made their way to Elwood, where they owned a nice farm and had a large family. Her father drove livery for a Dr. Pitt and her mother was kept busy raising nine children, eight girls (she was the fourth) and one boy. A second brother passed away at an early age.
She says that brother, Ben, was a little bit spoiled as the only son and he is the one who, in a way, instilled in her her greatest fear.
“He used to coil snakes up and put them in a coffee can,” she said, shuttering. “Then he would chase me around the house with them, I don’t know how many times. It made me so scared of snakes. I hated them after that. I still don’t like them.”
One fear she did not have was that of being the designated chicken slayer in the family. It was her job to de-head chickens that would be used for family meals. It was done with a wire attached to a hook. “I was the only one who would do that,” she said. “None of my sisters would kill the chickens. I was the tough one of the family.”
That ‘fowl’ job was only part of everyday life on the family farm. “I learned to work hard,” Helen said. There were beets to hoe and thin, animals to tend, grain to bundle and hay to haul and stack. There were cows to milk before school and after. “We had to smell our hands to make sure they didn’t smell. Us girls had to do the hard work on the farm. We were the boys of the family.”
She recalls the family horse, Snip, who was used to load the hay into the barn. “He was a tame old horse,” she said. She also recalls how that barn took the brunt of her early education one day.
“I learned to drive a car when I was 12 years old,” Helen grinned. “I drove a car, but I hit the barn. Nearly tipped the barn over. That was terrible.” More seriously, she said she had to learn to drive early in her life for a very good reason. “I had to help with the farm.”
But all the farm chores did not stop her from enjoying school and making the most of her free time.
“My neighbor was my best friend,” Helen recalled. “I used to walk through our field down to her place and we would play together. We had so much fun together.” It didn’t hurt that her friend’s mom was usually baking bread. “I could smell it as soon as I reached the door. Oh, that smelled so good.” She said she never missed an opportunity to enjoy a slice of fresh bread on each visit. “I always got the end part. I just loved that.”
She loved attending Bear River High School and was selected as president of the Home Economics classes. “That was fun,” she said, adding that other than that claim to fame, “I wasn’t anything big.”
After graduation, she married Yosh Yamasaki on May 2, 1946. They had met at a ballgame. “He was a very good athlete,” she recalled with a smile.
The couple bought a farm in West Corinne and again, Helen went to work, something with which she was already familiar. The couple raised sugar beets, potatoes, onions, and then alfalfa and grain, as well as four children (three boys and a girl). With so much produce on their little farm, she started canning and became well-known for that skill. Another talent she developed was candy making, especially during the holidays, and neighbors looked forward to getting a tray of chocolate sweets from the Yamasaki kitchen.
She took a job at Maddox Diner in Perry, as well, to supplement the family income and became quite proficient at chopping ingredients for salads. She was Queen of Lettuce there for about 13 years.
“We had a lot of fun together. Mr. Maddox would always talk to me, telling me about his life. And Mrs. Maddox was also so nice to me, too. They were such nice people. I just really enjoyed working there,” Helen said.
Now days, although her mind (and those lightning fast lettuce chopping fingers) are not as quick as they once were, Helen said she enjoys her life. “I guess I’m just lucky,” she said. She is a big Utah Jazz fan, cannot live without her cell phone and, of course, there is always The Golden Girls to watch over and over again.
But none are as golden as Tremonton's own Helen Tanaka Yamasaki at 101.