I thought I was going to be late to my first class. It was early February, and we were being pelted by yet another snowstorm — not significant enough to shut things down, but sloppy enough to make the 15-minute drive from my house in East Deering to South Portland take three times as long. “Arggggg!” I raged as I sat stalled in traffic, pounding my palms on the steering wheel. What, I wanted to know, were all these idiots doing out in this weather, impeding my way, when I clearly had someplace urgent to be? “Move it!” I bellowed at the car creeping up State Street in front of me. (Imagine the carnage if I hadn’t given up caffeine several years ago.)
Fortunately, I’d banked some extra time. I pulled into the parking lot with five minutes to spare. When I blew into the room, my students were already assembled, fully engaged in their own conversations. My arrival created only a tiny ripple. The first day of class is always a bit chaotic, and it took some urging to get my charges seated. I sat at the narrow table with two students at each elbow and four more crowded around. Three others sat off to the side, two with their arms crossed defiantly across their chests. Though this program was voluntary, I could sense some reluctance. It was my job to make them all feel welcomed and comfortable — if only I could get their attention.
A firm hand gripped my wrist. “My name is Joann, and I just want you to know I won’t be coming again.” A diminutive woman with curly hair and glasses looked up at me. “I’m losing my hearing and vision, and I don’t think I’ll be able to participate.” She took a notebook out of the basket of her walker, and her face broke into a broad, mischievous smile. “But I’m here today!”
Joann’s smile filled the activity room at the Betsy Ross House senior-living facility with stars and sparkles. Oh, you’re not going anywhere, sister, I thought. I’m keeping you right by my side.
I had been engaged through a private grant — administered by the Portland and South Portland public libraries’ outreach librarian, Lisa Joyce — to teach memoir writing to this group. She and I had been conspiring for well over a year to find a way to help seniors share and preserve their stories. Funds were finally secured thanks to a gift from a former resident and book-group member at Betsy Ross. Her family was looking to spend a sum in a way that would’ve made her happy. This was it.
I started by having the participants introduce themselves and say what they hoped to get from our time together. Jackie B. (one of the arm-crossers) declared that she had no idea what she was doing there and, like Joann, didn’t plan on returning. At the first break, I lost one person who’d wanted to know why I was talking so much and not letting them get to their stories. Evelyn, who relied on a walker, told me she wasn’t able to sit for long stretches and may have to get up and leave. Anne, a witty Brit, announced she would be on a cruise during the next meeting. Even those who were enthused about the program were unsure what they could possibly have to say that would be of any interest to others.
Not exactly a rollicking start, but I had faith.
Their first exercise was to write about a memorable childhood meal and share that story at our second meeting. Food is a powerful portal to memory, and I often use this prompt to get people started. Joann, at the behest of the group and with my urging, did return, as did Jackie B. and Evelyn. We got right to work. As the essays were read, the room gradually filled with the smells of roasting meats and frying donuts and cabbage stewing into sauerkraut. We heard the menacing laugh of The Shadow, tasted the morning’s daily gruel, felt the wonder of the candy counter at the family store, and saw the evil-eyed pea beans staring up at us from Linda’s plate. We entered country kitchens, grand Victorian homes and lived-in parlors. We hooted, we hollered. Residents on their way to lunch paused to gawk at the ruckus. In just one week, our group had become co-conspirators on a magnificent caper.
With each subsequent week, that ruckus only grew. Evelyn did, indeed, need to drop out, but Joann and Jackie B. (who had uncrossed her arms and joined us at the table) soldiered on. Joann pulled her chair right beside each reader and was usually able to make out what was being said. In turn, she regaled us with her sailing stories and world-travel adventures, often leaping out of her seat to punctuate a point. Bob, the group’s lone male, was the resident raconteur. He set the stage for his tales by moving his hands in front of him as though smoothing a sheet, saying, “Picture this, if you will…“ You could almost hear the campfire crackle and feel the woods hem in around us. Anne, who had returned from her cruise, declared each story she heard “smashing,” as though we were on Carnaby Street in the 1960s. We traveled from Africa to Aroostook County and from a grueling Parkinson’s charity walk to a harrowing ride on Space Mountain. Years, decades fell away. Around our table there was no silver hair, no need for walkers or hearing aids. We were time travelers shooting through space.
Before our last meeting, I asked the group if they would be willing to read for a larger audience: the community and staff at Betsy Ross. Any of the initial hesitation had long since flown out the door. Everyone consented.
For this final presentation, each participant read his or her “greatest hit,” as determined by votes during an earlier session. A good showing of staff and residents gathered in the dining room. The readers clustered in an alcove, their “stage,” facing the audience. Not one of them was nervous, even though Jackie B. walked around with an imaginary flask, “spiking” her group-mates’ juice glasses. Offered a table and chair, each opted to stand when their turn came. Their voices rang out across the room.
Gadabout Anne, who was off traveling again, left me to read her first essay. (I spared everyone my British accent.) It brought us to wartime England and gave us a taste of the Christmas puddings and homemade elderberry and parsnip wine her mother made. The wine lived in a giant crock under the stairs and emitted a yellow ooze. “Don’t touch that,” young Anne was admonished. “It’s working!”
Jackie B. had us howling with her story of how she once hijacked a funeral procession. Joann took us on a hot-wired plane ride. Bob had us on the edge of our seats as he described how, during his time in the service, a hitchhiking trip, a couple wrong turns and the toss of his last 50 cents into a church’s collection plate led him to the woman who became his bride of over 60 years. Linda’s sly sense of humor crackled when she told us about a trip to Florida with her former husband, whom she had not seen in 17 years, and her adult children, and the complicated sleeping and bathing arrangements that had to be made. We all got teary as our other Jackie — Jackie S., the group’s den mother, who watched out for us all — described losing her devoted poodle, Cuddles. The hilarious and calamitous Cathy wrapped things up by declaring herself a thief (she steals pens) and a murderer (a turtle-sitting job she did for her daughter ended with a “crunch” underfoot). Before the laughter subsided, she added offhandedly, “She’ll get over it. She’s a middle child.”
The applause at the end was as loud and spirited as one of our earlier meetings. We threw our arms around each other in celebration. In our seven weeks together, we had become a family. “All for one, and one for all,” as Joann liked to say (punctuated with a “Zowie!”). During our last meeting, I set the group up to continue without me — each would take a turn as leader. And I promised to come back and visit in a month to check up on them.
Why do I feel this compulsion to help people tell their stories? Yes, because it’s fun, but there’s more. My mom and dad are gone, as are most of their friends. I have no living uncles or aunties. Almost an entire generation has left me, taking large chunks of my personal history with them. It’s like walking down a long corridor, flicking off lights in each room you pass, forever blacking out the contents. Teaching these workshops is my way of saying, Leave a light on.
At the conclusion of the program, I was presented with a card and a bouquet of tulips — despite the March snow swirling outside, a sure sign of spring.
Elizabeth Peavey’s one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, is (Off Off) Broadway bound in May! For details about this and other performances and workshops, go to elizabethpeavey.com.