Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My New Friends

I miss my new friends already. Can't wait to see them tomorrow. Wonder if any of them worked on their writing at home over the past week. If any of them is sitting somewhere in a quiet place writing as I'm typing this now with Corinne Bailey Rae singing "Put Your Records On" out of my laptop speakers. Christine and Ernestyne asked to bring their notebooks home; Hattie and Bernice wrote their names inside the front covers of theirs and asked me to hang on to them until our next session. Tomorrow should I ask them to follow through on the stories they started on or just give them a fresh prompt to keep things systematic? I'm thinking I'll take a risk and try the former. Just let their memories roll right out of their pens. Keep it messy, keep it unpredictable, keep it true to life.

Friday, September 25, 2009


The name alone conjures a throwback glamor. Ernestyne walked in cool and collected, unaffected by her canes, one in each hand, the handles smooth and glossy from wear. At first she stayed silent. She said she was better at listening than speaking and never knew what to write about anyway. She wasn't used to telling stories either. She said, "If people asked me, I would offer my little bit of assistance." It just didn't seem like she had ever been asked. But when I started telling my story, about my relationship with my grandma, about the reason why I wanted to be there at the senior center and listen to them at that very table, Ernestyne lit up. Her eyes became jewel-like. She had been keeping her head down - she was reading with intrigue Christine's pink hardcovered book that had been making its way around the table - but suddenly she looked into my eyes and said, "The best things are those that are available in life, those that I received a few years ago." I felt like I was hearing a poem. I was confused. I wasn't exactly sure what she meant, but I felt like maybe this time I should keep silent too, and just let her words hang there, and maybe in the weeks to come, slowly, in her own time, she would tell us what she meant. And then she wrote. Bit by bit. She wrote only very little each time. I could see because I was sitting right by her. Every time she paused, she would tap my elbow and say, "What do you think? How do you think this sounds?" Then she would light up with another thought and return to her paper again. And then to me. And then to the paper. Back and forth like that. I told her she was a great writer, that she could say in half a page what people take three pages to write.
Ernestyne Whiteside Bush
September 24, 2009
Good afternoon everyone: welcome to the inner chamber of my life.
Ny name is Ernestyne Whiteside Bush, and I am not related to our ex-President, George Bush.
That is what she wrote. In paranthesis. She showed me. When she showed me, she wasn't smiling. She waited till I smiled, and then she beamed.
However, I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee near Lookout Mountain, which is noted for three mountains easily obtained from a short distance.
This area is my mother's area where her family lived.


Bernice, oh Bernice. Some people are born funny, and she's one. She told so many jokes and I was so busy laughing that by the time I stopped and looked over at her, I realized she was writing furiously and was halfway down her notebook page. Her notebook page is next to my laptop right now, I am feeling it now, and it is bumpy, bumpy enough that if it was on carbon paper the paper underneath would have a perfect imprint. I mean, she wrote hard, she thought hard. She dominated that page.

Bernice Moore 9/24/09
I am 76 years old. My story is in 1951. My husband was at Fort  Bennie, MA. He was there a year before he sent for me to come. At the time I had two children. We caught the train going to the army camp. My husband was there for three years. They had those Black and White signs (to keep out black people.) The people were not too friendly. I made friends at the store and food places. The bus fare was 11 cents and 20 cents from the camp to the town. The weather was hot. Once I got lost. I ended up where I found a place with grass and snakes and other animals. It was not fun. Some places you could go in and some you could not.

At one time in the war years I was 10. We kids picked up tin cans. We needed tin to make airplanes. We had to collect cigarette paper and soda bottles too.

We were in two wars. Japan and Germany. I am so glad my brother came home safe. A lot of men and women were killed.

War is a bad thing.


Hattie has the kind of smile that makes you feel like everything's gonna be alright. Her shade of lipstick yesterday was perfect. A golden bronze with the subtlest sheen. Just right for the end of summer, the beginning of fall. Her haircut too. Perfect. Short, easy curls frame her face. It's that beautiful-from-the-inside-out kind of thing. She has that thing. She said she loves writing and published some stories many, many years ago. But now she finds herself thinking more than she writes. Yesterday she sat down and wrote this. When she read out loud, her voice was steady.

Hattie Lee Ellerbe 9/24/09
The Best Day of My Life So Far - Today!!
I turned 76 years of age on May 10, 2009. The way my gramdmother used to whip me, I didn't think I would see 16. (She promised to "beat" some sense into me.) Now that I am 76 and look back over my life I thank God for my "sainted" grandmother. It was because of her that I am who I am today. She was determined that I would grow up to be a God-fearing, God-loving person and be educated from first to twelfth grades at least.


No nail polish, 7 pizzas later and a good, good night later, here I am again. Back to Christine. She glided in the room even though she had so many bags on her. She was tall, with a big-boned build. Before she even sat down, she started emptying her bags. "I brought all these things to help me remember. Look." She showed me a printout of research she had done about the year of her birth, 1939. The pages were wrinkly and brown from a dried-out spill. She pulled out a velvet navy photo album with gold trim. "This is me in the 60's. This is me again. I used to tutor for kids. 15 hours a week. That's what was called for. I loved working with kids one-on-one. You don't see me in the pictures with them because I was behind the camera. This is me in Christmas. This is probably the 70's. This is everyone at Christmas. I like taking pictures of everyone at Christmas..." Maybe thirty pages and this-is-me's later, she interrupted herself. She took out the class flier (the flier in all its neon green glory that the senior center has made to announce this writing workshop) and asked me in all sincerity, "What was your birthyear? Because I can do research for you on your birthyear too. Then she asked what the birthday and month were too, and wrote everything next to my name on the class flier. By this point the photo album was covered by other things on the table, but this pink hardcovered book was visible on top of this pile. "Ah, look." She flipped through the pages. It was one of those books that help you find out about yourself. She didn't remember when she had filled out the book. She had picked words from a list that best described her personality. She had picked her favorite fashion model. She had filled out blanks about her favorite clothes on the page "Mall Madness". She told me she could never trade clothes with her friends because she was too much bigger than everyone else. And then she flipped to the back of the book and ripped a page from another little notebook she had sitting on the table. On the page, she wrote down the Library of Congress Catalog Card number of the pink hardcovered book, in case I wanted to ask everyone in the class to get a copy to fill out. "Kodak published this book. If you write Kodak," she said, "they can tell you if they still carry the book." And then there was that little notebook, the one that she had just ripped a page from. That was the gold mine. It was thin and vertical. The length of an outstretched palm with long fingers. "This is where I write my poetry." Her poems were hilarious. Absolutely hilarious. She read me several. One is called "When You Get Old". It is this giant list of what you should and shouldn't do when you get old, including not to go on shopping sprees. (Because you are weak in the knees!) So, she promised me, for the purpose of this blog, that she was going to expand the list and handwrite it neatly so I can get it typed up and we can read it online in a few weeks. "But wait", she asked me, "what do you think about the title? Should it be 'when you get old' or 'when we get old'?" That question made me smile. When we get old, that was what Christine and I decided on.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

First Session

Today, after months of planning, we had our first workshop. The best part of was afterwards when the seniors were all getting into the elevator, I heard Bernice say, "Boy, that was fun." I heard all of them laugh before the elevator doors closed. Christine was the first to arrive. She had three totes. Three totes besides her purse. (Uh oh, it's 5pm and I'm having people over. I promised pizza from scratch and have to start prepping, and ha ha I want to paint my nails too. Need to finish this post tomorrow.)

What Americans Certainly Don't Do

Next year I am turning 30. I am excited about it. I love the idea of getting old, the peacefulness of it, the been-there-done-that of it. But then I look around and see people's attitude towards older people. It's upsetting. Youth in a jar, that's what people want. Not wrinkles, not physical delays. And when I poke around on the web I see on Yahoo this Q&A string entitled "What Cultures Respect and Revere the Elderly?" And the Best Answer - based on number of votes - said, "Africans and Amerian Indians definitely do. Asians had in the past but the younger generation is not following this past example. Americans certainly do not." Ouch. I am Asian and American, so that's a double whammy. I guess my relationship with my grandma has grown something in me. I don't know what else to call it except for a soft spot for seniors. I didn't know what to do about it until months ago, I suddenly noticed the senior center one block away. And after some meetings and emails with the fabulous staff there, I knew what I had to do: start a storytelling and writing workshop for seniors there. And put their voices here, online, for us to listen.

The Phone Call that Started Everything

I love talking with my grandma. Three years ago, I thought I would call her just to say hello. Had never done that before. Was never even a family-type person. We haven’t stopped talking since. During our phone calls, she would tell me story after story from her past; I would listen – I mean, really listen – because my Chinese is rusty from leaving Hong Kong at the age of twelve. Her stories would transport me from my downtown Philadelphia loft and my over-extended life as an architect to the Chinese village where she was born, the budding city of Hong Kong where she survived a world war and raised eleven children, and her suburban home in Seattle where she lives now. When I said my aunts and uncles must be amazed by her stories, she said, "No one knows any of this. No one knows because no one ever asks." She told me I was silly for finding her special.