Mary Beth Writes

This is another interview with a person who lives frugally and thoughtfully by design and by default. 

Thanks, Helle.

.....

How I met Helle Koustrup Berry tells you a lot about how she arranges her life.

For several years I was very involved hosting MayaWorks sales. These were (and still are) volunteer efforts to create markets (in coffee shops, service organizations, congregations, schools) to sell Fair Trade items made by Mayan artisans in Guatemala. (http://www.mayaworks.org/) Running a sale was never hard but it took time and I always asked for volunteers – which is how I made some of the best friends of my life.

Helle didn’t know me except through my newspaper column. When she read a general email asking for volunteers; she signed up even though she didn’t closely know anyone else who would be working the sale.  She read from afar, it sounded interesting to her and even though she was still working fulltime at that point, she gave up half a Saturday to help a cause that intrigued her.

She is the kind of person who reaches out, not from obligation or guilt, but from curiosity and that beautiful human longing to be part of meaningful efforts. She does not sit at home and wait for good things to come to her front door and knock. She moves out into the world. 

You will see more of this as you read along.

“Our plan was to work until I was 69 and Jack was 70; we arranged our retirement plans towards that knowing our parents lived long lives and expecting the same for ourselves. We were just a few years into a little business that we were building. We had a utility van; we ran a delivery service that Jack had started as a local expediter but it grew into a national service. In three years we saw nearly the whole country. We’d pick up a manufacturing prototype in one state that needed to be delivered ASAP to another; we could share driving and see the country and we loved being together. Sometimes we would pick up small shipments that needed to get from here to there. We were reliable, honest, flexible and it was going well.

“We talked and laughed and I was knitting most of the time I was not driving –I love to knit! We were finally, well into our 50’s, having good and loving lives. We were not rich, but we were making a profit and we knew we could keep this adventure going for a long time.

“Then Jack started to feel a little off. We saw doctors but we were on the road a lot it was not easy. This went on for months. One morning I came downstairs from our motel; we’d stayed in Atlanta that night. I saw Jack, my 6’2” big burly bear of a husband – standing at the door of our van quietly weeping because he didn’t have enough strength to twist the key to open the van.”

“It took a few months to diagnose ALS and by the time the doctors knew, so did I. I had been Googling the tests they were ordering and I could see how they were narrowing it down. We learned his diagnosis in July and he passed away the following March, 2012. I have been a widow for six years.

Helle (pronounced Hella) Berry has lived an interesting but not-always-easy but life. She is not rich, but she is managing. She continues to do what she has always done; build her life forward with curiosity, problem-solving, hard work, and enough confidence to take advantage of what comes her way, whether it was what she thought she wanted or not.

She was born in Aarhus, Denmark and the first thing to learn about her is this – she is the child of TWO people who were in the Danish Resistance during WWII although her parents didn’t actually meet until after the war.

The Nazis occupied Denmark 1940 to 1945. In those years Helle’s mother lived in both Copenhagen and Aarhus. In Copenhagen she was an apprentice in a shop that designed needlework canvases; her mother had hand-painted canvasses for the Queen of Denmark.

One day she was in a line of women going through a check-point. All the women ahead of her were being thoroughly searched. Helle’s mom calmed herself, made her heart stop racing, and when it was her turn, she smiled and acted easy-going. The guard glanced inside her purse and then waved the attractive young woman through.  He didn’t know she had fake ID’s under the purse’s bottom lining.

Helle’s dad belonged to a group that secretly loaded weapons and bombs onto small boats destined for resistance fighters. Nazi headquarters occupied the 1st and 2nd stories of a building along an unnamed Jutland harbor. The resistance located their center of operations IN the basement of the same building!  Apparently the Nazi were too superstitious to check out the basement, so it was used as a resistance site!

Helle’s parents met after the war, married, and had their two little girls. When Helle was 8 her parents announced they were moving to the US to find more opportunities for their family. This was a hard move for Helle; she lost her happy early childhood of grandparents, cousins, school, and friends. She still remembers how disorienting it was for her.

“I had just started to read; now I was back to square one - not knowing what people were saying to or around me.  It was hard to make friends and I didn’t like going to my new American school. Some kids - because I had a Danish accent - called me a Russian spy! Eventually I learned to navigate my new world, although I am not sure if I have ever felt 100% at home anywhere since all those years ago, when I was a small girl in Denmark.

The family moved to Santa Rosa, California where Helle’s parents knew another Danish immigrant family. On the basis of that friend’s recommendation her dad was hired right away by Optical Coating Lab. He started at an entry level position but soon moved up, staying with that company all his working life on a research team.  This company invented heat and light resistant thin coating; her dad worked on the team that invented coating for early space craft windows after the heat of re-entry almost melted Alan Shepherd!

Her mom, an educated woman, only found work as a house cleaner as well as taking in ironing. Helle inherited her mother’s talent for hand-making beautiful things and was knitting by age 4. By high school she was sewing her own clothes, as well as manipulating patterns and sewing for friends. 

Helle put herself through college; first by living at home and going to Junior College, then living her last two years at San Jose State.  Her senior year she shared an apartment with three other young women, all of them of Italian heritage. “Going from plain Danish food to spicy Italian was quite a lesson for my mouth and stomach!” She’s still good friends with some of these women.

She always worked as well as took full loads of courses. She majored in Home Economics; her emphasis was textiles, weaving, sewing, and patterns. 

She graduated in the middle 1970’s. “My first job was working for Levi Strauss in San Francisco. Every pattern of Levis came out in a variety of different weights of denim. We had to test these denims for various qualities to see how they would hold up, etc. There were So MANY circles of denim all over the place and after we did the testing, they were thrown away. So of course, I took them home and made a quilt of them!”

A member of the Strauss family asked Helle to train other workers after they realized she was the employee who most efficiently arranged pattern pieces to create the least waste.

“I had the highest accuracy for fabric forecasting.” She tried, but she could never figure out how she did it well enough to teach her skill. “It was a combination of know-how, education, experience, and intuition, and even I didn’t know how I did it!”

San Francisco was a wonderful city in which to work and live in the 1970’s. She made friends; she did well at Levi Strauss and eventually at other companies where she learned the ins and outs of product management. Her career path was not one she could have invented, few women were going into manufacturing management back then, but when opportunities presented themselves Helle took advantage.

“I wasn’t rich, but I was earning enough income to support myself. I saved for months to buy a good stereo system. I shared apartments and used either public transportation or my bike. I happily spent money on eating out and going to concerts, but I also continued to make most of my clothes. I knew what my income was and always lived under it. I liked being independent.”

By 1979 Helle was ready for a change so she took a job as a Production Manager in Boston. The salary was an astounding (to Helle) $29,500 a year! (Inflation calculators equate this to over $100,000.)

But the CEO of the old, family-owned company spent most of his time clubbing and doing cocaine and the business fell apart. Helle looked at her options; she had money in the bank and a restless curiosity about the spiritual and social impact of one’s life.

“I was 30 years old, not married, no kids. I wanted more than to just be comfortable. I was intrigued by the Hippocrates Health Institute, so I planted myself in their way and soon became one of their instructors.  Ann Wigmore founded HHI as a place where people would eat mostly raw foods – she was one of the first to juice and advocate wheatgrass! My job was teaching yoga, plus leading other exercise classes to get people moving. HHI didn’t pay much but they gave me room and food (the only food they actually cooked was sweet potatoes!). I learned a lot about nutrition and health that I have woven into my life since.

“After six months I left for my next adventure; I worked at a horse-rescue farm.  After horses were healed and trained we used them to let kids and adults with mental and physical challenges learn to ride and to care for them.  It was a hugely satisfying for a short period of time in my life and I am still grateful I got to do that. 

“I had hung up my career for a year and that helped me find balance in my life.  At that point I realized I wanted to come back home so I returned - Boston to Santa Rosa - on a Greyhound bus! I can still see the country changing outside the window as I rode west.”

Helle visited some of her old haunts, including the deli where she had worked as a teenager. The person working the counter was in some kind of a crisis and wanted to leave the shop right at that moment. Helle laughed and told the girl to go, she would take over. A few hours later her old boss came in and found her capably managing the shop. He hired her on as a manager where she stayed several months, giving her time to look around at what she wanted to do next.

She applied for an accounting position at a thin-coat manufacturer in the Santa Rosa area. Management knew her father’s reputation, plus her resume showed her capabilities in production, quality control, math and her experience with computers – so they hired her.

She stayed with that company for 15 years, moving up, learning and earning a lot. During those years she met her first husband, who owned a small business, and they had their son. Their work schedules should have complimented each other, but her husband fell into habits that sabotaged their work and family schedule; she generally felt as if she were a single parent earning most of the family’s income while doing most of the care for their child. Sometimes other family members helped but they were not always positive influences; after almost ten years of this frustration Helle realized that if she waited longer to file for divorce, she would be required to pay alimony since she earned more than her lackadaisical husband.

“That was a rough time in my life.  My son was having issues in school so I enrolled him in a private school which was helpful, but which also created another large expense.  I was not succeeding in my relationships and that, as anyone who has gone through it knows, was hard.

Helle looked around for a better position and found one as an accountant for a manufacturer in a Chicago suburb. “My son made new friends including a kid named Greg. Soon I was doing the carpool run to take Greg, my son, and another boy to and from school, Scouts, and more. Soon I was also spending time talking to Greg’s really interesting and kind dad, who was also disentangling himself from a complicated marriage. That was Jack, of course. We married in 2000.”

Jack was asked to move to Racine by Case Manufacturing; he was responsible for the logistics of shipping equipment in Europe. Helle remembers the day Jack called her at work; he needed to know how to create an Excel formula to calculate how many rail cars and guard cars he should reserve to ship equipment across Russia!

A year after they moved to Racine, Case restructured into Case New Holland. Jack lost his new job with the great benefits. Case invited him to do the same job he had been doing for them, but now as a contract worker. Eventually that contract job would become Jack and Helle’s expediting service; but it wasn’t a positive event at first. Their income and benefits had been hit hard, so she took the only jobs she could find in those stressed years in Racine. She worked as a contract accountant at months-long assignments. The days of earning $100,000 a year were over, but Helle kept working and she and Jack supported themselves and their sons.

In a few years they were able to transition into fulltime expediting. The boys grew up and went to college and joined the Navy. Life was not rich in income, but they were doing all right until Jack became ill.

 “July 2011 to March 2012 was awful and yet we were never closer. Jack insisted we cash in some of his life insurance; like the providing husband he was and wanted to be, he wanted to be sure the house was in good shape before he left me. So we got a new roof, new windows, and a remodel of our bathroom. He was right about that. I appreciate not having to think about those things; I am in a small but secure house.”

We applied for and he was quickly awarded disability social security; except they tell you are qualified but it doesn’t come for months. I didn’t get a check until after he passed away. That was a hard time; we were using credit cards for medical tests and life expenses.”

They also used some of their insurance benefits to take two big trips. One was to Idaho for Helle’s father’s 90th birthday celebration. The other was to Denmark. “Jack said he wanted to see where I was from. It was an incredible trip and I am glad to have those memories.”

Helle paid most of the medical and travel expenses from Jack’s accrued disability check and Insurance covered the rest. She was not in debt, but there was not much left to live on until her retirement annuities will start in four years.

She took Social Security widower’s benefits for a period of time but it wasn’t enough, so she switched to take her own social security benefits.  Because she had many years of a good income, that check, while not lavish, is enough to live on IF she is thoughtful and careful.

For two years she worked part-to-full time at retail jobs that paid $10-12/hour. After more than a year of employment she quit these jobs due to the stress and aggravation of management.

She scaled back her life.  She began to rent the second bedroom in her house. She rented to two younger women in the past; she now rents to a man who is at the end of his working career also. His rent pays half the mortgage; as well he does handyman projects plus mows the grass and shovels the snow. He is not her partner; but his helpful presence allows her to feel safer in her home.

Helle no longer travels. “I have to make choices; I can’t afford to fly or stay far from home. My mother has dementia and is in assisted living in Idaho. It frustrates my sister and me that I can’t afford to visit her. I call often even though she doesn’t know who I am. I call the nursing staff every week and have established relationships with them. I even give them clues as to her early years, so they can ask her things she might remember. I send her flowers often; she always loved flowers and still does.”

“I spend about $100 per week on healthy groceries; organic when that option is available. These choices are my legacy from those Hippocrates Health Institute days! I maybe eat out once or twice a month; otherwise I’m home eating made-from scratch meals. I drive a VW Beetle that I bought three days after Jack’s funeral. Some of my clothes are from regular stores and on-line sites; but I don’t need much so I don’t buy much. When I feel an urge to do “recreational shopping” I go to thrift stores. I drink wine and beer from the grocery store, in moderation, at home. I rarely go out. I read a lot.

“My most inexcusable expense is – knitting! I love to knit! And I don’t enjoy working with cheap yarns … I really love beautiful wools. ALL my socks are gorgeous and hand-knit. My son has likely never worn a purchased mitten or glove. My friends know if there is a gift giving occasion, they will get something knitted from me.  I never knit for money, though maybe I ought to when skeins of yarn can cost $20-30!”

“My son is in the navy. Last year I participated in a program called Hats For Sailors; one can check out the project at www.Ravelry.com. There’s more about the program at ‘hatsforsailors’ on Instagram.

“For exercise I walk. For joy I laugh at and cuddle my big cat Lizzie. I spend time with friends, I eat delicious foods. I wish Jack was here and I wish I didn’t have to be as careful with my income as I am. But I am here; I take care of myself, I’m not rich, but I’m sure not poor. I am aware of how many people around us live much harder lives than I do.”

One could say that if Helle had saved more when she was younger, she would be able to travel more now and she would be able to fly back to visit her mother.

But in order to do that, she should not have taken off the year to learn and work in the alternative life movement. She should not have worked on the horse farm, with people who have challenges. She and Jack should have figured out how to get stables jobs with better benefits, and not run a cross-country delivery service for three happy and adventurous years.

Frugality is more than squirreling away money. It is about hope, energy, humor, and problem-solving.

As Helle’s Danish countryman, Hans Christian Andersen once wrote, “Just living is not enough … one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”

 

 

 

 

Comments

How nice to get to know Helle better. Very interesting and well written.

What an inspirational life story! It is not smooth sailing for many people but Helle has made lemonade with what she was handed. I know many folks who live on little.

Good article. Sounds like a really nice woman! Her knitting sounds awesome

She told me, when we talked, that she would be glad to show you how to warp a loom!!! Networking my 'hand-crafting' friends as I go...

She sounds like she was a sightseer of life, just like when she and her husband were sightseers on the road.

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