The July morning began in the same way as years of Tuesdays for Helen Bowen. As always, she picked up Daisy Estelle Anderson at a Baptist Manor apartment in Buffalo, and they did their volunteer duties at the Ladies of Charity headquarters on Broadway before stopping for a quick lunch at Wendy’s.
Only then did things take an unusual turn. Estelle, which is what her friends called her, asked to be dropped at home instead of at her regular game of bridge at the Salvation Army. She allowed Bowen, 86, an old friend from their schoolteaching days, to carry her bags into her building, a task Estelle would typically insist upon herself.
A few days later, she left a message on Bowen’s phone.
“I’m still among the living, but I’m weak,” she said, “and I won’t be coming to the Ladies anymore.”
That statement quietly shook the foundation of the place. On July 29, at what had seemed to be an extraordinarily vital 97, Estelle died of pancreatic cancer that few beyond her children even knew she had.
“A great, great loss,” said her best friend, Corinne Blanton, 96. The two women met as high school juniors in Indiana, then reunited when they moved separately to Buffalo. Together, they helped found a chapter of the Girl Friends, a historically African American women's social group. They stayed close after Blanton left for Cincinnati with her late husband John, who had been an engineer with Bell Aircraft.
Many people, when they die at Estelle's age, are eulogized for what they did years ago. Blanton sees Estelle as an exception, to put it mildly. Right into this summer, she showed few signs of slowing down.
“She wasn't one to sit around and do nothing,” said her daughter Michele, an editor, writer and retired attorney in San Francisco.
The scope of that energy had few barriers. In 2017, Estelle was named Catholic Charities USA national volunteer of the year. She was honored for more than 30 years with Ladies of Charity, where she and her friends prepared thousands of layettes – bags filled with blankets, diapers, sleepers and more – for new mothers in difficult financial spots.
Barely a year ago, in response to that award, Al Roker of television's TODAY chose Estelle for a surprise visit, rolling up with a van of goods to support the layette effort.
"These people," Estelle told Roker of her friends at Ladies of Charity. "Their energy gives me energy."
Her long journey involved a kind of graceful, pragmatic urgency. To Estelle, the saga of her grandfather was a living tale of family trauma and ascendance. Born into slavery, he was sold away from his own mother at 6 and set free at the end of the Civil War, a guy who went on to run an Indiana brickyard at a time when most professional doors were locked against African Americans.
Estelle's parents, first-generation guardians of the triumph in that story, channeled it into an imperative for education. In Estelle's early 20s, she arrived in Buffalo for what was supposed to be a visit. She never left, choosing to stay after she met two sisters, Ruby and Cleo Jarvis, who assured her she could find a good job in the aircraft industry during World War II.
Ruby, who became an aunt by marriage to Aretha Franklin, died in the spring. She and Estelle played bridge together until the last months of their lives, and their back-to-back deaths represent the quiet loss of vast and irreplaceable civic knowledge.
Estelle's daughter Sheila was feeling all of it last week, after arriving in Buffalo for the hard task of sifting through her mother's things. "She wasn't judgmental, she was very open and whatever came at my parents, she and my dad seemed to somehow rise right through it," Sheila said.
As a young woman, Estelle married Arthur Anderson, who went to the University at Buffalo and became a lawyer. They raised four children – Arthur Jr., Michele, Sheila and Michael – but lost their older son, called “Chips,” to a heart attack at 26.
In the 1940s, Estelle met her husband's great-aunt, Grace Taylor Pendleton, who as a brilliant student in the 19th century had shattered racial barriers in Buffalo's schools. Before long, a monument is expected to go up above Pendleton's unmarked grave, and Estelle – probably the last person in Buffalo to actually remember her – would have played a honored role.
“She was so active, so giving a woman in spirit, and she was everywhere,” said Sandra Anderson Garcia, a Florida lawyer, professor emeritus and niece by marriage helping coordinate the monument for Pendleton, her great-great-aunt.
To Michele and Sheila, a New York City author and jazz radio personality, one of the most astounding things about their mother is the media attention she attained in her 90s, a sudden prominence she found amusing.
"She used to say just live long enough, and everyone wants to interview you," Helen Bowen said.
After retiring as a schoolteacher, Estelle offered presentations about the Underground Railroad, based on the way African American quilters sometimes used intricate codes to help men and women fleeing slavery. One of her quilts remains on display at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, and she was taking classes in weaving and writing almost until the time she entered hospice care.
Both Bowen and Eileen Nowak, the Our Ladies of Charity administrator who nominated Estelle for the national award, describe her as a storyteller whose central gifts, the qualities that kept her young, were humility mixed with a burning curiosity.
“She never stopped wanting to learn,” Bowen said. “It was just her nature.”
Estelle embraced her iPhone and Macintosh. Sheila called her “the queen of Facebook” for the way she moved around on social media. She played guitar and the autoharp, learned the piano and recorder by ear and was doing line dancing well into her 90s.
Her daughters recall how she made their clothes when they were children, though she never went much for cooking, inheriting her own mother's belief, Michele said, that "food was fuel" and overdoing it burned precious time. She remained adept at crocheting and sewing, which led into her magnificent quilting.
"It was pretty incredible," Sheila said. "In the end, she was always able to shine."
In June, barely a month before Estelle's death, she joined a couple of us from The Buffalo News for a photo project at the Central Terminal, the old train station that she said changed her life. As a young woman arriving in Buffalo for the first time, she climbed off a train into a bright and busy concourse, where her aunt immediately bought her an ice cream soda from the kind of business that would not have served them in Indiana.
Estelle never mentioned her illness on the day she spent with us at the terminal. On the drive back to her apartment, she looked out the window at what once were mansions of the wealthy. She recalled how many African Americans in Buffalo had no choice except to work as domestic help in those homes, and she spoke of how her parents were adamant that she would not be trapped in that life.
They put their emphasis on education, on intense awareness of the community. All their children earned college degrees, an achievement Estelle coupled with unending diligence. "She was always on the go," said her old friend Corrine Blanton, speaking by telephone of an energy that was both a statement and a shield in a world Estelle realized could inflict searing pain.
For a moment the phone line from Cincinnati went silent, as Blanton struggled with the full nature of her loss. Estelle's children are planning a memorial service in December, where they hope both to celebrate their mother's lasting ethic while gently capturing a harder truth Blanton put to words.
“I'm sure,” she said last week, “there is a void in Buffalo.”
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more of his work in this archive.