Claudia Sindelar says her aunt, Helen Bejger, is fond of giving her some advice. “Don’t get old,” Bejger says.
Of course, Bejger has not exactly followed her own words of wisdom. On March 31, Sindelar and other friends, family and caregivers assembled at Cantata Adult Life Services in Brookfield to wish Bejger a happy and healthy 107th birthday.
“It was lovely,” said Sindelar of the celebration. “They did a really nice job.”
Bejger woke up early for the occasion, got her hair done and donned a tiara and a sash to greet well-wishers and have some cake.
“I think she enjoyed herself,” said Sindelar.
Born Helen Pociunas to Lithuanian immigrant parents in 1914, she grew up and lived for decades in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood of the city, around 21st and Leavitt. She attended nearby Our Lady of Vilna School. The parish long ago merged with nearby St. Paul, but the old school building still stands on 23rd Place, its past life inscribed in stone above the front entrance: “Lithuanian Catholic School.”
However, according to Sindelar, Helen and her brother, Edward, had difficult childhoods. Their mother, Victoria, died of cancer when Helen was 5 and Edward just 2. Sindelar said Bejger told her that she remembers her father, Anton, putting her and Edward on a train, unaccompanied, bound for New York to live with his brother’s family.
That family ran a butcher shop, and Helen was pressed into service, scrubbing floors and doing other chores.
“They did a lot of work,” Sindelar said.
Eventually, they would return to live with their father. Sindelar said Bejger attended high school at Pickard School, 2301 W. 21st Pl., which appears to have served both as an elementary and high school at one time. Helen would later marry, though she never had any children.
In 1940, according to the U.S. Census from that year, Helen, who by then was 26, was still living in the old neighborhood in an apartment at 2121 S. Leavitt St. along with her husband, 39-year-old Walter Bejger. Living with them were her father, called Anthony in the census, and 22-year-old Edward, her brother.
Walter worked as an enameller, while Helen was a radio coil assembler at Standard Coil, where she made 14 cents an hour, according to an old pay stub found by Sindelar. Though just 58, Anton Pociunas was described as “unable to work” in the census rolls, while Edward was a laborer.
In 1946, said Sindelar, Helen got a job as a telephone operator at AT&T, where she would work until she retired.
Bejger later moved to Berwyn, where Sindelar began visiting her weekly and helping her run errands and go grocery shopping – Bejger never learned to drive. Sindelar also helped Bejger move into the Wye Valley independent living facility at Cantata (then called The British Home) in 2003 when she was 89.
Bejger has a wry sense of humor, according to Sindelar.
“If you ask her ‘how do you feel’ she’ll say, ‘With my hands,’” Sindelar said. “If you ask what she wants, she’ll say, ‘A shot and a beer!’”
On March 31 when Sindelar told Bejger that Cantata was throwing a birthday party for her, she asked her niece how old she was.
After Sindelar told her, Bejger responded, “That’s old.”