Cape Cod's Premier Senior Living Community
(Originally published in the Cape Cod Times)
By Christine Legere
SOUTH YARMOUTH — Hilda Whyte moved to the older-adult community of Thirwood Place when she was 86 to get a little assistance.
But Whyte, who had lived on two continents and taught biology and physics while raising three children, who spent her retirement days in Centerville gardening, teaching computer skills to seniors, and even shingling for Habitat for Humanity in her 80s, wasn’t finished surprising people.
She jumped into activities at Thirwood as she had always done, and joined a group that gathered to write their family histories.
But Whyte went one step further. She recorded her most memorable moments in poetry, earning her the affectionate title of “Unofficial Poet Laureate of Thirwood Place” from the 20-member writing group.
“Hilda was unique,” said Doug Dorchester, organizer of the history writers. “I don’t know of anyone else who told their history through poetry.”
In September, Whyte succumbed to congestive heart failure at the age of 90, but her life in poetry will be presented to her children by Thirwood staff during a ceremony Tuesday.
The poems Whyte penned reflect a devotion to family and an enduring curiosity about the world around her. They are laced with nostalgia and humor.
She was born in Germany in 1923 and one of her early verses recalls a chilly Christmas Eve when she was 4. Walking to an evening church service flanked by her mother and father, she recalls, “The bitter cold made the snow all crunchy.”
She describes her impatience while she waited for the arrival of “St. Klaus,” and the scene that greeted her when she arrived home from church.
“It was a wondrous sight
A great big tree — so huge in height
With a hundred small white candles
Alight and radiant with their flames
What bursting joy and great delight
Filled one small soul this Christmas night.”
Two years later, Whyte and her parents left Germany on a sprawling ocean liner, then took the train from New York City to Michigan, where she grew up.
In “The Peach Tree,” Whyte recalls an amusing debate over a tree the pair discovered while on a walk. Jim insisted it was a peach tree, while she, a science major, assured him it was not.
Determined to win the argument, he devised some proof.
“A knobby lump upon a branch
It was not there the night before
A bit of string — a bit of guile
And nature’s miracle brings forth a smile.”
Whyte’s verse covers the couple’s marriage and their years raising three children, Robin, Eric and Kristin.
In the poem “Most Vivid Memory,” White describes Kristin catching her leg behind a steaming radiator as a toddler and getting a third-degree burn.
“A deep scar remains today
Fifty years later.
On Kristin — and her mother.”
Jim Whyte died in 1975, in his early 50s, from kidney disease. Eric suffered from the same disease as an adult, but survived thanks to the donation of a healthy kidney from Robin.
Whyte recalls in verse the nerve-wracking prelude to the surgery, when the family flew from the East Coast to Denver a month after Sept. 11, 2001. The operation was ultimately successful.
Years of anguish now not real
New hope for the future
And a moment of great joy.”
Whyte’s decision to recount her life in verse didn’t surprise Peter Saunders, a professor at Cape Cod Community College, where Whyte frequently enrolled in writing classes through the Academy for Lifelong Learning, an educational program for adults 50 and older.
“She found it easier to do it in poetry,” Saunders said. “She just had a gift for expressing herself that way.”
Whyte’s oldest daughter, Robin Reisman, said the novelty of recording her family history through poetry would have been appealing to her mother.
Whyte’s memory of her past was clear, Dorchester said.
“There are some of us who, by the grace of God, retain our minds and continue to comprehend the meaning of life. Hilda had that capacity. When she died, she was as lucid as a young person,” he said.
Dorchester also recalled Whyte’s enthusiasm for life.
“Hilda was bubbly and incorrigible,” he said, recalling Whyte buzzing around Thirwood Place on a red motorized scooter. “She would go and go even when the doctor said she didn’t have long to live. She had heart failure and deterioration of the spine. She lasted four years and wrote until the very end.”