Helen Russell: 1909 – 2011

Issaquah, Washington

November 22, 1909–January 10, 2011

On January 10, 2011, Helen Shanstrom Russell, member of Haiku Northwest and founder of the Vashon Island haiku group, asked that her hospital room furniture be arranged to her liking. She complimented the nurse on the bed’s comfort, and then asked the nurse to bring paper and pen. Helen dictated her last haiku, her jisei, and passed away in her sleep. This haiku was her last gift to us:

first night in new digs

arranging furniture

I no longer have

We remember Helen with appreciation as we would any person who lives well, enjoying life for 101 years—or who begins writing haiku at 87 years old. But what we remember most about Helen is that she insisted we join her in her haiku journey. This journey entailed writing haiku, but also discussing the craft and art of our own haiku. She offered comments, and greatly appreciated hearing insights into her own writing. Helen possessed an abiding curiosity for words, culture, language, and present and past conventions in haiku.

Born in Seattle in 1909, Helen was all Northwest. This perspective shows in her haiku images, word choice, and idiomatic expressions. Her field of reference has a depth of time, reaching back to Seattle’s genteelly rough young days. She attended Seattle’s proud educational institutions (Broadway High School and University of Washington, class of 1930). She lived through the stresses of the Great Depression. She worked for Northwest industrial notables—Daily Journal of Commerce, Simpson Logging Company, and Boeing. Helen married James M. Russell in 1936, and they had two sons, Mac and Alan, and were blessed with a daughter-in-law (Judy), grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

welcome, Marissa

sleeping your way in, as I

sleep my way out

Distant Sounds 2008 (chapbook)

Helen’s hobbies included gardening, writing short stories, travel (often with a granddaughter), bonsai, and taking extension classes. She turned to haiku when tending her bonsai became too much as she gracefully aged. From her beach cabin on Vashon Island’s Paradise Cove, in 1998, Helen phoned a few islanders to insist that they write two haiku to share at her house each month, first Mondays at three o’clock. Today that group, now a dozen islanders, still meets. In honor of Helen, the Vashon group published a haiku anthology, Mondays at Three: Paradise Cove, in 2003.

Me, prone—

after a geoduck,

hand in another world.

When Helen moved to Issaquah, she joined Haiku Northwest, the second haiku group to claim her as friend and writing peer. While her sight and hearing diminished, her haiku world expanded with her membership in Haiku Northwest and the Haiku Society of America. She was fully engaged in their meetings, conferences, and social gatherings. Soon her haiku were published in journals such as Frogpond, The Heron’s Nest, and Modern Haiku. With Connie Hutchison leading as designer and editor, Helen’s haiku volume, Distant Sounds, was published in 2008 to celebrate her 99th birthday. In 2009, the Haiku Society of America gave Distant Sounds the Mildred Kanterman Memorial Award for Best Chapbook.

Publication of her haiku especially pleased Helen. Her most recent haiku appeared in Fifty-Seven Damn Good Haiku by a Bunch of Our Friends edited by Michael Dylan Welch and Alan Summers. Here is one of Helen’s haiku from the book.

a cloud across the sun

and suddenly

I am old

—Ann Spiers, Vashon Island, Washington

The following obituary for Helen was published in the Seattle Times on January 16, 2011:

Helen Margaret Shanstrom Russell

Still going strong at 101, Helen died unexpectedly of natural causes on January 10, 2011. Born to Percy Clare Shanstrom and Evelyn Helmer Shanstrom in 1909, she grew up in the Rainier Beach area. She was a graduate of the former Broadway High School. In 1930 she graduated from the University of Washington where she was affiliated with Mortar Board and Zeta Tau Alpha sorority. She played shortstop for the 1927 Husky women's baseball team and was finally awarded a varsity letter in 2007 by the athletic department at a gala honoring women in sports. While attending school, she worked for the Daily Journal of Commerce and Simpson Logging Company. Helen married James M. Russell in 1936 and had two sons. When her husband contracted polio, she went to work for Boeing where she remained until retirement. Helen lived in the Seattle area her entire life and was proud of her many accomplishments such as publishing a book of haiku titled Distant Sounds at the age of 99. Along with haiku, Helen loved bonsai, writing short stories, living in a cabin on Vashon Island, listening to loud jazz music, and dancing to her own beat. She traveled around the world, often tagging one of her granddaughters along. She enjoyed living independently at Bellewood Retirement Apartments [in Issaquah, Washington] for the past 11 years where she was a member of the jazz group Club Belle. The highlight of Helen's long life was her 3 granddaughters whom she loved dearly. Helen is survived by her sons James (Mac) Russell, Alan Russell and wife Judy, granddaughters Cari Sheppard (Mike), Lindy Mihata (Kean), and Shelly Krasselt (Ryan), four great-grandchildren Blake and Marissa Sheppard, Lowdon Mihata, and Justin Krasselt, sister-in-law Mona Shanstrom, nieces, nephews, and cousins. She was preceded in death by her husband James, sister Jean, and brother Jack. Helen's individuality, spark, feisty nature, stubbornness, subtle humor, and love of life were all attributes that made her such a unique person. She was truly a "great old broad" and will be missed by many. At her request, no services will be held.

The following are comments from several of Helen’s haiku friends:

From Marilyn Sandall, Haiku Northwest:

Helen had a wry sense of humor and created mystery around her haiku and her life. She had a keen sense of history and of the human condition. Many of her haiku were based on memories of her early family life and relationships across her long life span. I reread the haiku drafts she brought to our monthly meetings and some of those published in recent years in Modern Haiku and Frogpond.

She created mystery (you knew there was a story there):

he tells me the word

I’m looking for

total eclipse

The Heron’s Nest, 2009

cloudy day

too complicated she says

when asked to explain

May 7, 2009 monthly meeting

mulling over the day

fancy his saying that—

season of smog

October 2, 2008 monthly meeting

head raised to howl

with the coyotes out there

but where is the moon

November 6, 2008 monthly meeting

Some poignant expressions of living 101 years:

come fly with me

crooner sings to woman

with a walker

October 1, 2009 monthly meeting

winter morning


tell me about it

January 14, 2010 monthly meeting

Helen had a wry sense of humor:

canned peaches

stuck full of cloves

it must be her period

Modern Haiku 41.1 Winter–Spring 2010

A keen sense of history:

a black man

in the white house

and by the front door

Modern Haiku 40.1 Winter–Spring 2009

The human condition:

red-winged blackbird

on a spent cattail—

autumn emptiness

Modern Haiku 39.2 Summer 2008

From Shirley Ferris, Vashon Island Haiku Group:

To Helen!

that however acerbic her comments, they were always tempered with humor and/or humility.

that she had those fabulous Northwest artists in her simple beach cabin.

that her insight only increased as her sight decreased.

that she was happy living alone.

And, finally, from Helen, apropos to passing:

I kiss my pillow

put my cheek upon the spot—

ready now to dream.

Me, prone—

after a geoduck,

hand in another world.

From Michael Dylan Welch, Haiku Northwest:

I appreciated how Helen was always passionate about attending haiku meetings, and dearly missed the group when she couldn’t attend. She always had such a clear voice in her haiku too—her poems were distinctly hers, projecting honesty, acceptance of her life experiences, and a fine mix of clarity and implication. She was always sharp with her poems and insightful and disarming with her comments. Even at her advanced age, she retained the capacity to learn, to accept comments and criticism to help her improve her poems.

And she was refreshingly independent. I remember during one haiku meeting while we were all discussing someone’s haiku. She silently rose to her feet, positioned her walker for herself, and then slowly shuffled fifteen feet away to close the meeting room door, and then shuffled back. She was perfectly fine doing that for herself rather than asking someone else to do it. That simple act crystallized my perception of Helen—she wasn’t going to let her advanced age make her a burden on anyone, and she was perfectly capable of helping herself.

Here are four of Helen’s haiku, among many worth remembering, poems she selected herself (among others) to include on the Haiku Northwest website:

as far as the eye can see

cattails disintegrating

autumn chill

the drag with the paddle

holds our course

summer afternoon

receding ranges

of mountains—

the bus is waiting

new phone book

his name

still there

The last thing she said to me, during a phone call shortly before she died, was to tell the haiku group that she loved us all.

From Dejah Léger, Haiku Northwest:

Helen was my favourite lady to see at haiku meetings. She was a spark of life and always surprised me with her wit and depth. I will miss her.

From Connie Hutchison, Haiku Northwest:

At a joint meeting with the Port Townsend group at the Bellevue Regional Library on May 8, 2008, we were asked to share something about ourselves that no one else in the room knew about us. Helen began by saying, “I once received a ‘love letter’ from William Carlos Williams.” The room full of poets was impressed! We had several minutes of lively discussion as she explained that she had met him when he visited the University of Washington. She had asked him to critique one of her short stories and he replied with that cherished letter.

To celebrate Helen’s 99th birthday in 2008, Ann Spiers of Vashon and Ruth Yarrow and Connie Hutchison of Haiku Northwest collaborated as editors to produce a book of Helen’s haiku, Distant Sounds. Helen was actually the fourth editor; she was very clear about her preferences and she was involved in every aspect of the process, from the color of the papers to which versions of which poems would be included. The most difficult step was agreeing on the sequence of poems. After seven drafts, we heartily agreed on the final version.

I remember Helen with joy and great appreciation. Her haiku were unrelentingly honest.

failing sight

shadows solid enough

to stumble on



his shaved ice

There was a story behind every haiku, and our monthly meetings were enriched by them.

From Ruth Yarrow, Haiku Northwest:

Helen was such a jewel—sparkling, sharp-edged, and, to all of us in Haiku Northwest, precious. Her independence delighted me. When she wrote about some experience from her long past, we could be baffled about what she was referring to, and instead of scrambling to explain, or feeling defeated, she would make us look more deeply at the poem with a comment like “Oh my! I thought that was perfectly clear!” When she missed a meeting and I sent her an envelope of the haiku we had passed around, she would call me and say in her aging, sometimes shaky but strong voice, how much she appreciated it. I’ll remember her as she sat on her 100-year throne at her birthday party, looking regal, amused, and a bit mischievous. We miss her enormously.

From Barbara Chasan, Vashon Island Haiku Group:

Don’t forget to mention how great she looked in her hats.

See also "Helen Russell's Determination."

Congratulations to Helen Russell on her 100th birthday, celebrated on November 22, 2009 (her birthday is actually November 23). To see more photos of Helen's 100th birthday party, click here. To see an Issaquah Press article about Helen and her 100th birthday, click here. Helen founded the Mondays at Three poetry group on Vashon Island that continues to discuss and share haiku every week. The group also sponsors the "Hiway Haiku" signs that appear next to the ferry dock on the north end of the island, where they get a great deal of visibility. Below is a special Hiway Haiku sign prepared to celebrate Helen's birthday. There are four signs altogether, one for each line of the haiku, and then a fourth sign, pictured below, congratulating Helen on her milestone birthday. The calligraphy is by Kaj Wyn Berry. Photo by Ann Spiers. Here's the poem:

welcome Marissa

sleeping your way in as I

sleep my way out