South Lake Tahoe woman turns 101
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Turning 101 can feel like turning 19 or 22.
“The real party was last year,” Helen Riddle’s daughter Joan Peterson said.
But there is one thing no 19- or 22-year-old can say. That is that they have a more than a 100-year history.
Riddle, who turned 101 on Dec. 6, did not appear to think she has lived an interesting life. She didn’t seem to believe it when she spoke about building planes in World War II or when she spoke about growing up in a farm that didn’t have electricity for most of her childhood. It was only when she thought of the differences in her life then and the world now that the path of her footsteps really seems to take on meaning.
“It’s interesting to look back on how it has all changed in 100 years,” she said.
She sat on a reclining chair last Friday under the mixed dim yellow light of a lamp and the shallow whiteness of sunlight filtered through thick clouds. She was covered under several of her crochet projects, which she often donates, and spoke at times energetically, though she was not sure she was telling an interesting story.
“I don’t know what else,” she repeatedly said.
Her voice was clear, with the toll of time hanging on her words, but still speaking in a tone and pace of someone much younger.
“She said when the power was out, that it reminded her of her childhood because there was no electricity,” Peterson said.
“One day I was talking about living in the desert, and I said how hot it was and my granddaughter said, ‘I bet you didn’t even have air conditioning.’ And I said, ‘what good would it do? We didn’t even have any electricity,’” Riddle said.
Riddle was born in December 1913 in Merion, Colorado, but grew up in Brush. She was the only daughter, had three older brothers and lived on a farm where her father grew wheat and corn and kept cattle.
For most of her childhood there was no electricity on the farm. They traveled everywhere on horseback and did not own any work-related machinery until her father bought a tractor when she was about 13 years old.
“We didn’t have these fancy bicycles you kids have,” Riddle said.
Her pony, Lindy, was at the heart of her affection. Every Christmas, her father would strap a sleigh onto the horses and they would go to church by sleigh.
She babysat and was tasked with many of the responsibilities around the house.
“I became a pretty good barber, too because I had three older brothers and I kept their hair trimmed,” she said.
Riddle later moved to the town of Nipton on the California-Nevada border near Las Vegas with her first husband and two children.
In the early 1940s the family moved to San Diego, where Riddle worked for Convair assembling bombers during the Rosie the Riveter era of World War II. She donated blood as often as she physically could and continued to do so until she no longer could at the age of 70.
Riddle remained in San Diego after the war for roughly 15 years, during which time she was divorced and later remarried and had two more children.
During the mid-1960s Riddle moved to Orland, where her sister lived. She lived there for roughly 12 years where she experienced the slowest years of her life.
She discovered Tahoe when a friend invited her on a trip to gamble.
“There was nothing to do in Orland,” Riddle said. “There was a lot more to offer in Tahoe.”
At the time, she said, people would be brought to Tahoe from out of town and given $5 to gamble, but many people simply came to spend the day and kept the money.
She eventually moved to South Lake Tahoe in 1974 and bought a house with money from the sale of her home in San Diego.
She was taken by the beauty of Tahoe and by the attitudes she encountered from its people, generally friendly and caring, she said.
“When I first came up here, you could get a dozen jobs in one day,” she said.
Riddle worked as a waitress for nearly 20 years, first at Harveys and during her final years at Harrah’s.
After she retired, she opened a daycare business and took care of children until she was 92.
As she looked back at the 101 years she’s lived, she told the stories she remembered more fondly with a change of speed and higher tone in her voice and leaned forward with her chin up like a small child trying to tell an exciting story at the dinner table.
She looked back at the five generations she has seen grown before her, talked about her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. She looked back at the part she played during World War II and the life she built in all the places she live in.
“There’s not much else, really,” she said.