Anyone with remarkable genes can live to be 100 — no skill set is required. But to live to be 100 while becoming increasingly loving, joyful, grateful, and selfless, and to do so with a better memory than most people half her age, now, that is a real feat — and talent. The clincher is that nothing in Shanta-Ma’s brutal early life would suggest such a happy ending.
The first of her family to be born in America, Hilda Densmore grew up on a farm outside Racine, Wisconsin; her family came from Germany via Ellis Island. The family was poor, and their hardscrabble life was made doubly oppressive by the cruelty within the home. “Hell,” “sin,” and “damnation” were favored topics of conversation; punishments were frequent and savage. A haircut without Father’s permission, for example, elicited being knocked to the floor.
At 13, Hilda was accused of committing a heinous sin when her abdomen began to swell. She was hitched to a plow from sunrise to sunset, and her protests of innocence went unheard. She was cursed and spat upon. After 10 months of torment, a visiting relative called a doctor, who took her to a hospital to have the 10-pound ovarian tumor removed. She was told that she’d never be able to bear children (to the later amusement of her children and grandchildren). Her family never apologized.
Though she loved learning more than anything in her meager life, she was forced to abandon school at the end of 8th grade so she could work full-time on the farm. Escape from the farm came only with World War II, when women were needed to work in armament factories.
The world opened up to Hilda when, on the way to work, she met a soldier on the train. He complained about how dark it was inside the train. She suggested that maybe he should remove his sunglasses. The soldier, Bob Densmore, fell in love with Hilda, and, despite the strong objections of her family, Bob and Hilda took a train to California and got married. Their long, happy marriage lasted nearly 50 years, until Bob’s death in 1993, and yielded two children, Bob Jr. and Kathy (now Pravrajika Vrajaprana, who became a nun at Santa Barbara’s Vedanta Temple). Their son, Bob, and daughter-in-law, Joni, gave them two beautiful granddaughters, Nicola and Lesley. When Joni was tragically killed in a car accident, Hilda cared for her bereft grandchildren.
Despite, or perhaps because of, her miserable early life, she continued to seek the God that she knew was love itself. Her reading and study convinced her that hell and damnation were not the truth but rather that reincarnation and spiritual growth were the true path. By the 1960s she found her spiritual home at the Vedanta Society. Her teacher, Swami Swahananda, gave her the name that so well-reflected her nature — “Shanta-Ma,” meaning “peaceful mother.”
Shanta-Ma was invariably cheerful, loving, and generous. When asked why she hadn’t become bitter, she replied, “I was bitter until I was in my twenties. Then I realized I was only making myself unhappy. So I decided to be happy.” And she did. People often said she was the happiest person they’d ever met. What they didn’t realize was that her loving openheartedness came as a result of a conscious decision to become that person. She became the original “hugging mother,” eager to love and embrace anyone in her ever-increasing orbit.
As one of the longest residents at Villa Santa Fe (formerly SHIFCO), Hilda lived in Section 8 housing from 1979-2015. A conniving shopper at the Dollar Store, she carefully saved her money so that she could be generous with others. A quick look at her checkbook shows gifts to the Braille Institute, Blind Veterans Association, Food from the Heart, UNICEF, Vedanta Society, Rescue Mission, and Nepal Earthquake Relief, along with various people who needed an extra $20 or $50 to help them along the way. She was perfectly content with instant mashed potatoes and canned or frozen vegetables — and still managed to live an extraordinarily long, healthy, and productive life. Fiercely independent, she insisted on doing her own laundry, shlepping her laundry basket on her walker to the Laundromat, until she moved into Sarah House in April 2015. As long as she could walk, she did errands for neighbors and cooked for them when she could.
Her lack of formal education made her one of Santa Barbara Adult Education’s staunchest fans. She gratefully and enthusiastically took every class she could, including Learn Russian While Singing. Until the end of her life, she read two or three books a week and never stopped being interested in everyone and everything. One of her greatest qualities was her genuine joy in others’ joys. She never felt that she deserved more, nor did she want more. She was delighted with the happiness of others. To see others happy made her radiantly happy.
But Hilda was also earthy and could cuss you under the table. A shrewd card shark, she was a bit of a wildcard herself: Years ago, when her husband had to go to the hospital for heart surgery, she made Alice B. Toklas brownies for him and the entire ward, somewhat elevating the mood of his fellow patients.
Hilda was kind, honest, and wise. A few days before her death, the tumor that would claim her life caused a quick grimace on her face. When a friend reacted, Hilda laid a hand on the tumor and said, “Honey, sometimes you’ve just got to be with it.”
She proved that in order to be happy, you don’t need to have had a happy or even adequate childhood. You don’t have to be educated. She was always a good 30 pounds overweight and never had nice clothing. But she was extraordinarily content and conveyed love and joy to the myriad people whose lives she touched.
Hilda’s memorial will be at the Vedanta Temple on Sunday, January 17, at 4 p.m., followed by a reception in the convent. In lieu of flowers, please donate to either Sarah House, which she dearly loved, or to the Vedanta Society.