Helen Pakush: At Home with Life
As a teenager, Helen Pakush was very involved with Ukrainian dancing—which is reflected in the decorative plaques that line the front door frame of her apartment. “I loved that kind of dancing,” she says, “and I still play many of my old LPs.”
Helen was born to Mary and Nicholas Pakush on the ethnically rich and vibrant Lower East Side of New York. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, and found it a congenial place to raise their seven children. Helen’s father was a waiter on Wall Street, where he learned English and also to read and write. Helen’s mother was raised by her aunt and saved her earnings as a farm laborer to leave the old country. “My mother couldn’t read or write,” recalls Helen, “but she had great common sense. One day, I came home from school, crying because someone called me an ugly name, and she told me to recite ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will not hurt me.’”
After graduating from Washington Irving High School, where she excelled in math, Helen went to work for Equitable Life Insurance Company in its medical insurance lines. “I had wanted to be a nurse,” she said, “but my mother dissuaded me. She said I’d learn more as a secretary and get paid more. I think it’s the other way around these days.”
Helen met her late husband Nicholas, who was of Russian-Ukrainian background, at a picnic at College Point, N.Y. “I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me. He said I was too skinny.” Still, Nicholas wrote to her when he went abroad to work as a civilian mechanic for the Boeing Company to assist Britain on a special project called Project 19. “He was abroad during the entire war,” Helen says. “He went to England, Africa, and India. That travel, I believe, was equivalent to a college education.”
Nicholas and Helen reconnected after the war and began to date. Nicholas worked in international sales for General Tire, and Helen was attracted by his excellent manners and work ethic. “Back in those days, we really dressed up to go on a date, and Nick loved to go to nice restaurants and Broadway shows.”
The young couple married and soon had three children—Barbara, Audrey, and Nicholas Jr. Nick was transferred to California, which Helen believes was “the best thing that ever happened to me.” After looking at various areas, including Foster City, which Helen laughingly describes as “looking like a sand dune at that time,” they moved to a new housing development on Los Altos Place in San Mateo.
Nick traveled extensively for business, and the children became involved in scouting, dance, and Little League baseball. Helen played “mother hen” to neighborhood children at the family’s backyard swimming pool and later went to work for the San Mateo County Medical Society. “It’s ironic,” she says, “that I never became a nurse but was involved in the medical field during my work life. My daughter Barbara is a nurse today and got her PhD in nursing from UC Davis.”
Helen has lived at Sterling Court for nearly a year and enjoys it. When asked to sum up her view of life, she points to her strong religious faith. “We’re all born with eyes, a nose, ears, and hands to work with,” she comments. “Our ten fingers remind us of the Ten Commandments. All we need to do is look at each finger and ask ourselves if we have followed the commandments that day. It’s so simple, and it has kept me on the right track.”
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