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Obituary of Yoko Andrea Helmerson
Yoko Andrea Helmerson died peacefully in her sleep at home in Olympia, Washington, on February 4, 2021, after a short period under hospice care.
Yoko was born in Kyoto, Japan, to Tooru Tokura and Tokiko Nitta on September 14, 1929. Yoko was the first of 11 children and, by Japanese tradition, was called “Nechan” by all of her siblings, a title which carried with it a certain amount of respect and additional responsibilities in support of her mother. Also, as the first born daughter, Yoko was favored by her doting grandmother, Osakesan, who would take her to Kabuki Theater performances and, if she behaved, would later be rewarded with a “manju” treat. She never lost her love for the Kabuki Theater (and the mangu treat) and would later, in1956, play the role of “Okarusan” in a Kabuki performance in Seattle.
The war years changed Yoko’s idyllic life, with wails of air raid sirens forcing her family to run to air raid shelters as American bombers flew over Kyoto on their way to targets in the larger cities. Unknown to Yoko’s family at the time, Kyoto, due to its historical and cultural importance, was spared any damage during the war. However, when Yoko was in junior high school, she and her classmates were assigned to work in various factories in support of the war effort. Yoko worked in a car battery plant and, as a result, carried scars on her body from hot lead that would splatter while being poured into a mold. The last years of the war were very difficult due to the lack of food, soap and other essentials. She even tried to eat grass to supplement her meager diet, to no avail. She once sneaked into a guarded potato field at night and dug up some potatoes, which she later shared with her sister, Mitsuko.
With the arrival of the American Army, Yoko welcomed being sprayed with DDT to kill the lice in her hair and clothing, along with the chewing gum and candy thrown out to the children as the soldiers’ vehicles passed by. She quickly learned that the Americans were not to be feared as she had been told by the Government.
When she was 20, she moved to Yokohama to live with an aunt, and began working in a library just as her father was working as a librarian at the Kyoto City Library. She had always loved books and learning so, when she immigrated to America, she enrolled in the Seattle Community College, studying English and working part time as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant. At this time, Yoko met her future husband, John, who was a student at the University of Washington, studying Far Eastern History and the Japanese language.
Their courtship was reinforced when they learned that they both loved traveling by car, and their weekends were spent driving to various scenic areas in Western Washington. Yoko remembers the time when she was about nine years old, when her father hired a large taxi to take the entire family to a movie. Yoko sat next to the driver and announced to her skeptical family that it was her dream that, “I will have a car like this someday.” She never let go of that dream through a succession of cars and motor homes, and that dream continued until her last days. Yoko became an accomplished driver of every vehicle they owned, and easily managed to drive in downtown Taipei and Tokyo, both noted for congested traffic.
In 1955, a movie with an accompanying song, “Love is a many Splendored Thing,” was released by Twentieth Century Fox. It was one of the first movies Yoko and John watched together, and Yoko was so taken by the movie and the song, that for the rest of her life, whenever she heard that song, she would always say, “That is our song.”
In addition, Yoko quickly embraced the Pacific Northwest’s outdoor lifestyle of skiing in the winter and tent camping along the ocean shore and scenic rivers in the summer. She had a knack for starting a bonfire, learned from her time as a young girl who stoked the fire under the rice pot each morning. At the campgrounds, she would gather twigs and branches and, within minutes, would have a roaring bonfire, the envy of all of the other campers.
Yoko married John Helmerson on August 31, 1957. They attended The Immaculate Conception Church in Seattle, and later were asked to serve as Foster Parents for the Catholic Children’s Service. Yoko, coming from a large family, welcomed the opportunity to care for the children brought to her home. Their ages ranged from only a few months to about six or seven. John, who was continuing his studies at the University of Washington, and having a part time job after classes, was of little help during the day, but Yoko took charge of the entire operation.
Katherine Ann “Kathy” Helmerson was born on January 10, 1961, and Kristian Peter “Kris” Helmerson was born on April 10, 1962. Yoko was now blessed with her own children, for which she had always hoped.
John Helmerson was hired by the U. S. Customs Service Appraiser’s Office in Seattle in 1961. Thus began a career that would take Yoko and her children to Japan, Taiwan and Hawaii. John volunteered to serve as a Customs Advisor in Vietnam in 1966 and, since dependents were not allowed in country, Yoko took the opportunity to stay in Kyoto, Japan, and live with her parents, siblings and their children. Kathy and Kris were overjoyed at having so many relatives and the attention given to them. John was given ample leave to visit his family, which allowed them to visit many scenic sites around Japan.
Upon their return to the United States, Yoko and John briefly stayed with Yoko’s sister, Mitsuko, and her husband, Ben Tsutomo Ishii. Mitsuko, Yoko’s next younger sister, has always been an anchor to Yoko and her family, providing lodging after various assignments, caring for Kathy after a serious back operation, and providing a room for Kris while attending the U of W. In later years, Mitsuko provided Yoko with the latest Japanese news, gleaned from her computer and Japanese TV channels, in their obligatory nightly phone conversations. Those conversations were particularly comforting to Yoko in the last years of her failing health.
John served another two-year assignment in Vietnam and this time Yoko and the children lived at Wellington Heights, Taipei, Taiwan, an enclave of American dependents of State Department and USAID employees serving in Vietnam. Kathy and Kris were enrolled in the Dominican Catholic School in Taipei. While there Yoko was allowed to visit Vietnam several times, exploring Saigon and traveling down the Song Be River on a Vietnamese Customs boat to Vung Tao.
Returning to Seattle in 1971, John was assigned to the Office of Investigations, and shortly after, they bought their first motorhome, a Chinook that looked like a bakery truck, but it had all of the accommodations for a family of four and Yoko’s sister. Their first trip was across the country to Florida, visiting the Fletcher family, and then driving to the city of Key West. The children had their first experience of walking on warm sandy beaches. They later bought a 27-foot sailboat for sailing around Puget Sound, no matter what the weather, accompanied by David Swenson and his family on their boat.
In 1975, John was appointed to a Customs Representative position at the American Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, a dream that Yoko and John had hoped for since joining the Customs Service in 1961. Yoko joined the Embassy Wives Club and enjoyed playing mahjong with the other ladies. The Customs Attache Office was a small but cohesive group at the Embassy, and Yoko soon established relationships that would last a lifetime. Kathy and Kris were enrolled at the American School in Japan. Again, Yoko’s urge to travel, not only by car but by train and subway, took her to all of the famous cultural sites she had long wanted to visit. In 1978, Yoko, John and Kris climbed to the top of 12,388 foot Mount Fuji.
After four years in Japan John was assigned to the Office of Investigations in Honolulu, Hawaii. Yoko quickly adapted to wearing the Hawaiian muumuu, which suited her beautifully, so that, as she walked about the town and shopped at the Ala Moana Shopping Center, she looked like all of the other local ladies. She loved maintaining her Hawaii Kai home’s landscaped yard, with coconut palms, mango trees and a Bird of Paradise plant.
Yoko and John were welcomed to Hawaii by an old classmate of John’s, James Coleman, and his wife, Asako, who had moved to the Big Island of Hawaii a few years previous. They would get together for dinner almost monthly to share old memories and to enjoy the local food. A few years later, Laurence Roxby, who had been John’s supervisor in Seattle ten years before, and had worked with him in Tokyo, was assigned to Honolulu as the Special Agent in Charge. Laurence’s wife, Norma, and Yoko, had been close friends in the past. So now Yoko had two close friends in Hawaii, the Coleman’s and the Roxby’s, with whom she could “talk story,” as they say in Hawaii.
Kris graduated from Honolulu’s Kaiser High School in 1980 and moved to live with his uncle and aunt, Ben and Mitsuko Ishii, while he was enrolled at the U of W in Seattle. Kathy met and was married to Ronald Drumbore in a garden setting at Kapiolani Park, Honolulu, on September 5, 1982, and later moved to Indiana.
Yoko and John returned to Tokyo, Japan, in 1985 as John was promoted to the Custom Attache position at the American Embassy. Yoko was again reunited with her friends at the Embassy Wives’ Club. That urge to travel prompted Yoko and John to drive the length and breadth of Japan during a long vacation, including a visit to Mishima Island in the Sea of Japan, where John had been stationed at a radar site for a year and a half during the Korean War.
Yoko and John returned to Seattle in 1988, when John retired after 33 years of government service. Within weeks of retirement, they bought their first motor home, the beginning of nearly 30 years of traveling from west to east and north to south, visiting all 48 contiguous states. Kris had received a scholarship to study at MIT in Massachusetts and, nearly every year, Yoko and John would share driving chores to visit Kris, as well as visiting old friends from their American Embassy days of the mid-‘70s, George and Yoko Morita and Mel and Sue Cox, now living in Virginia.
Kris received his Doctorate as an atomic physicist from MIT in 1991, with a very proud Yoko and John at the graduation ceremony. He went to work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland, and worked in a laboratory and shared an office with William Phillips who, in 1997, won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Kristian and his wife, Elizabeth, along with his lab colleagues, were invited by Dr. Phillips to attend the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.
Kris married Elizabeth Scriminger of Muskogee, Oklahoma, on June 21, 1997, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Three years later, Elizabeth was pregnant with her first child; her doctor wanted her to rest, so Yoko and John drove back to Virginia to take care of their household chores. One afternoon, while John was working on their garage door, Yoko came rushing in and said Elizabeth’s water had broken. With grease on his hands, Elizabeth in the passenger seat, moaning, and Yoko in the back seat telling John to hurry, they drove out to the freeway. It was about 5:00 p.m. on Friday on Interstate 495 around Washington, D. C., one of the busiest roads in the country. Fearing that the baby would come at any moment, John drove on the side of the road, honking his horn when necessary, as Yoko or Elizabeth (not sure who) was yelling “hurry, hurry.” They made it to the hospital, where Elizabeth was quickly put in a wheel chair and taken inside, where their first son, David Fox Helmerson, was born on July 20, 2000. Their second son, Kevin Shin Helmerson, arrived in less than exciting fashion, on July 4, 2002, while Elizabeth was resting in the hospital on doctor’s orders. Yoko, being present for the birth of her two grandchildren, was a very proud grandmother.
By 1999, Seattle had lost its charm when the rapid growth in population resulted in a two-story house being built in front of John and Yoko’s home, destroying their view of Puget Sound. They sold their house and moved to the Delphi Golf and Country Club in Olympia to be closer to their long-time friends, Charles and Miyoko Fletcher, whom they had known since their days at the U of W in the 1950s. Yoko now had a close friend with whom she would exchange visits and dinners, while John and Charles talked sports.
Yoko was not the only one who enjoyed traveling. Friend Asako Coleman, the widow of James Coleman, applied for and was accepted to work for the U.S. State Department. She has had assignments at embassies in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and several other countries. In 2004, she was stationed in Paris and invited Yoko and John to visit her for a month. What a whirlwind of sightseeing it was for them as Asako guided them around to many museums, churches and venues that Paris is known for. On the weekend, Asako arranged for the three of them to stay at the Embassy guest house in Bern, Switzerland.
Since Asako had to work, Yoko and John took the train to Rome, where they visited St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and many other attractions. Before their return to Paris, they spent two days at Lourdes, France, the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. While sitting on a park bench at the Grotto, Yoko and John prayed a rosary to Our Lady. Asako also arranged, with a friend at the Embassy, to drive to American National Cemeteries in Normandy and Omaha Beach. A sobering sight. They also visited Mont-Saint-Michel, also located in Normandy. They were so grateful to Asako for giving them such an opportunity to see Paris, Rome, Lourdes, Normandy and the other beautiful venues in Europe.
In 2009, Kris accepted a physics professor’s position at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, giving Yoko mixed feelings of being proud of his appointment but the loneliness of his being so far away. Though Kris and his family were able to visit Olympia several times, it wasn’t until March 2013 that Yoko and John finally visited Australia. Elizabeth, whose mother was born in Australia, was a perfect tour guide, showing them around Melbourne while Kris and the boys had to be in school. They saw the Great Barrier Reef, the Twelve Apostle Rocks and even panned for gold at an old gold mine; but for Yoko, her greatest pleasure was being with Kris and his family.
Yoko had always enjoyed visiting Las Vegas and they would vacation there for a week, two times each year. She enjoyed going to a different casino each day, having dinner in a nice restaurant, and sometimes seeing a show. She was not a serious gambler but did enjoy the glitter of Las Vegas. Initially they traveled to Las Vegas by motorhome or car, a two-and-a-half day drive, but they soon realized that a two-and-a-half-hour flight was the better option.
Yoko’s later years were spent sitting in her heated kotatsu, viewing the many Japanese video tapes, especially jidaigeki (period) dramas, provided by her sister, Mitsuko. Mitsuko’s encouraging telephone conversations each evening were particularly comforting to Yoko in the last years of her failing health, as they planned their next trip to Japan to savor the food they both missed so much.
The family wishes to thank all of the care givers, hospice nurses, and particularly the hospice chaplain, who arranged the visit of Father Lou Cunningham of St. Michael Parish, who came to Yoko’s bedside to pray over her and to administer the Last Rights of the Catholic Church. We also want to thank our long-time friend, Bruce Fletcher, who drove to Seattle and brought Yoko’s sister, Mitsuko, to Olympia so she could be with Yoko before she passed away.
Yoko is survived by her husband, John Richard Helmerson; her son and daughter-in-law, Kristian and Elizabeth Helmerson; her grandchildren, David Fox Helmerson and Kevin Shin Helmerson; and her sister, Mitsuko Ishii. Yoko is preceded in death by her daughter, Katherine Ann Helmerson; her brother, Susumu Tokura; her nephew, Shinya Tokura; her brother-in-law, Ben Tsutomo Ishii; her mother-in-law, Evelyn Katherine Hendrix; and her sister-in-law, Naureen Whitely.
Yoko was beautiful in every way. She had always loved the Blessed Virgin Mary and prayed to her each night. For Yoko and John, their love was truly "A Many Splendored Thing." We are sure that on February 4, 2021, there was a large welcoming party in heaven, attended by her loving relatives and her many, many friends.
A funeral mass will be held at a later date at St. Michael Catholic Church in Olympia.
If you wish to make a memorial donation, please consider donating to St. Michael Catholic Church, 1208 11th Ave. SE, Olympia, WA 98501, or Providence St. Peter Foundation, 413 Lilly Road NE, Olympia, WA 98506.
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