Wave Hill profiled longtime Member Helen Stein for our #FacesofWaveHill social media series and discovered that her life deserves a fuller telling. Helen has been visiting Wave Hill since the late 1980s, was a volunteer gardener and is now a member of Wave Hill’s Vista Society, a program for planned estate giving.
Helen Stein began her career in early childhood education after receiving a master’s degree from Cornell, and then moved to California to teach and direct a preschool. “The San Francisco school was idyllic as it was located in the back of a canyon and we hiked daily, played in a creek and learned about the plants that grew there, using them for food if we could, and to make dyes. But I yearned for more intellectual stimulation and better working conditions, so after 15 years in early childhood, I went to graduate school in Clinical Psychology.”
Helen discovered Wave Hill when she moved to Riverdale in 1988. Of her first impression she says, “I thought the view was unbelievable, and just to be able to sit in these chairs and look out, and I loved the houses, I loved the gardens, there wasn’t anything I didn’t love. I was an immediate fan.” She spent countless hours sitting in one or another iconic Wave Hill chair, writing her dissertation on a laptop computer.
Then, in 1993, Helen was off to Kansas, where she completed a post-doctoral fellowship and spent 10 years working at the Menninger Clinic. She struggled to raise fruits, vegetables and flowers in an extreme climate. When Menninger relocated to Houston in 2003, Helen returned to New York City, worked mostly in private practice and started to volunteer at Wave Hill for a number of years. At 73, she has decided to retire and is closing her psychotherapy practice. She plans to travel and volunteer with the New Sanctuary Coalition, which offers person-to-person support to immigrants facing detentions and deportations.
Wave Hill has added meaning and solace to Helen’s New York City life. Her mother died in 1992 and left a provision in her will that her family give away 10 percent of her mother’s estate. Helen said, “I had a discussion with my siblings about what we would do with it. Maybe should we donate it to places she had already given, and I said, no, we should each pick something that really speaks to us and I picked Wave Hill. I had taken my mom here and she just loved it.” That was how Helen met former Executive Director Kate French. At the time, Wave Hill was in the process of creating their first, fully accessible bathroom. “So we helped out,” Helen explained, “and it was very apt because [my mother] was quite handicapped, she was in a wheelchair the last few years of her life. It seemed like a very appropriate thing and then Kate and I hit it off and she has become a very important person in my life.”
When the bathroom was completed, Helen brought her father to Wave Hill, who was also in a wheelchair. She said, “He had a traumatic brain injury and Tony, who used to work here, he took that wheelchair everywhere.
“It was a gorgeous day in May or June, my father said, ‘Oh, this is the most beautiful place on earth.’ And he had traveled all over the world so that was a high compliment.” When Helen’s father died, the family again made a generous donation to Wave Hill. She commented, “You know we always felt we were proud of the gifts. I learned a lot about making judgments about where to give money.”
Helen volunteered for close to five years as a gardener and used to come every Friday. “[Wave Hill Gardener] John Emanuel was here then and he believed in everyone sharing the labor. In the winter I had to wash pots more than I was happy washing, but I weeded, I planted, I deadheaded, you know. I did all kinds of things and became very good friends with the gardeners.”
One of Helen’s favorite spots is the Wild Garden. “One time during the period when I was here a lot, I came with a friend. And it was snowing, and we went to that little gazebo and we were just sitting there watching the snow, you know so peaceful, and then somebody came and said we’re closing because of the snow, and very reluctantly we left. That’s a moment that will always stay in my mind. I always fantasized about staying overnight—camping out.”
Helen also has a vivid memory of bringing her great nephew, Mateo, to Wave Hill. She explains he is dyslexic and has other learning disabilities. “He loves nature and the environment. He was so absorbed, and then he was dissecting an owl pellet and there was another grandfather there, a doctor with his grandson, and he looked at Mateo and said, ‘You could be the next Charles Darwin,’ because his concentration was so intense. It was just wonderful to see this kid loving learning and with so much concentration.”
Wave Hill has mattered to Helen over the years and at different stages of her life. “You know I come here and my heart is full. I walked in today and I just looked at the river and I couldn’t believe how magnificent the view was.”