Monday, November 30, 2009

Hattie (Boys)

Nothing like a back-to-the-basics story to pick me up. And hmm, what’s more basic than say, boys and girls? Here is Hattie to tell how she grew up as one of the boys. I have to tell you I am biased on this story – to me there is nothing more wonderfully feminine than a woman who can kick it with the boys, ok, ok, I’ll admit it, I like to think I am a tomboy but in truth I am more like a tomboy-wannabe. So you can imagine, when Hattie read her story out loud, I kept wanting to jump up and say, “Me too! Me too!” - oh yes, that would include playing wing-“man” for her buddies – to this day, I do that too.

(BTW, next up, Mo’s story…“Girls"!)

Hattie Lee Ellerbe

November 19, 2009

My father always wanted “a boy”.

By the time his third daughter was born (which was me), he treated me like “his boy”.  He would bring home pets.  I remember he brought home a puppy.  When my two older sisters ran from it, I just stood there.  I was too afraid to move.  He put the puppy in my arms and beamed, “See Hattie’s not scared”.  I stood there frozen until the little puppy fell to the floor.

As we became older and there were now five girls, daddy left our care up to his mother.  Our mother had passed away at age 28.  We were from newborn to age 9 at the time.

If an errand had to be run or anything had to be cuddled or “petted”, you can be sure, daddy would say, “Hattie can do it”.  On the other hand, when something went wrong, my grandmother would say, “Hattie did it”.

Growing up I was always with the boys, playing their games and helping them get phone numbers of girls.  They treated me like one of the boys.  My best friends were mostly boys.

I will write more about being a middle child next time.  It has its “perks” and disadvantages.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

My Sweet Aunt

I didn't realize what I am most grateful for this year until the final hours of Thanksgiving Day. An aunt whom I was extremely close to passed away in Seattle at midnight west coast time. She is happy for all the right things (love in every form) and sad for all the right things (injustice of any sort). I will remember sharing French pastries with her and wrapping Chinese dumplings with her. I will remember how girlishly she giggled the first time she met my now-husband. We had just started dating but were already in love and she could tell. I am grateful for my aunt's lifelong innocence. She was 58.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Helen (My Lovely Parents)

One day till Thanksgiving and the first hints of the holiday season are everywhere - strangers on sidewalks are nicer, grocery stores are smelling like cinnamon, and last week Helen read us a Santa story... You know what I think about Helen's stories. I soak them right up. Always. But this one - like the hot cocoa I just made and finished in, uh, four gulps... I know, not ladylike at all - is especially irresistible. For me, there is nothing more comforting than hearing someone older than me talk about her very early childhood. I mean, to hear Helen talk about the painstaking effort that her parents went through to make Santa possible is really to hear a child's testament of how much she still loves (yes, of course, present tense, and permanently present tense - loves) her parents. And to get this close to feeling the idea of permanence is, to me, pretty comforting.

Eat lots this weekend (can you tell I will?) and Happy Thanksgiving!
My parents were born in North Carolina in the same country town. The little girl, who was to become the mother of my sister and I, was the daughter of the area minister of three small churches. My father was the son of a farmer. So they always, always knew each other.

When they were eighteen and fifteen years of age, they married. Later, they came nother to Philadelphia. In the ensuing years my sister and I were born. We were a closely knit family. My Dad always called Irene and I “his girls”. He never went to work without coming into out bedroom doorway to check on us.

When Christmas came around, it was really a time of fun and expectations. We really believed that there was a Santa Claus, and that he came down the chimney.

Mother began to cook the goodies several weeks ahead of the holidays. I can remember Mother having us help to pick the meat out of the walnut shells – which she had cracked with a nutcracker. Mother was to use the walnuts in a walnut cake. Usually she also baked a coconut cake and a chocolate layer cake. Sweet potato, lemon meringue and pumpkin pies were also added to the goodies. Oh, yes, I almost forgot to add butter cookies. Needless to say, our home was full of delicious aromas.

My father would pretend that he was sneaking into the kitchen or dining room to snitch some of the cookies. Of course, my sister Irene and I were on the receiving end of some of them. You might know that my Mother was well aware of what was going on – pretending that she didn’t.

Christmas Eve, we were sent to bed early. Naturally, we were very nervous. We would lie awake for quite sometime before we could go to sleep.

Christmas morning Irene and I awakened early and raced down to the stairs to the living room where the Christmas tree and our gifts were.

Our parents were smiling. Years later, when we no longer believed in Santa Claus, they told us that sometimes, they stayed up all night. They were trying to make things nice for us.

My sister and I were truly blessed to have such wonderful parents.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hattie (Riches)

The first time I met Helen, I was immediately struck by a certain-something that she carries about her. I guess I can call it aura but that just sounds too bizarre and psychedelic for my taste. Months went by and I started to assume that her certain-something just happens, that she was born with this lucky layer of goodness around her skin and that’s that. Then she told her story, “Riches” and finally I understood. Through seventy-six years of ups and downs – in other stories she’s told us about losing her mom when she was only five – she has made the conscious choice to be thankful for the full lot of it, for all of life, not just this event or that. And when someone is so completely thankful, it just shows.

Hope this story gives you a nice little kickstart to your Thanksgiving week!

Hattie Lee Ellerbe

I feel so rich! I tell my children that they are my jewels. They make me wealthy - all I need is a little bit of money (smile). They really make my life complete.

Besides my children, grands, great grands and one great-great grand, I have many nephews who outnumber my nieces. Out of the five girls born to my parents, we each had one daughter. We had no brothers; they had no sisters.

The game of “suspense” played by family members – Who is Aunt Hattie’s Favorite. As I hug each one at family gatherings, I whisper to them quite confidentially, “You know you are my favorite.” Over the years they have come to know – they are all my favorites.

I am also the family clown or comedian. God gave me a good sense of humor. I love to be around happy people. It is impossible to be happy all of the time, but happy times are the best memories of my life.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Because Sometimes a Sentence is Better than a Thousand Words

After class, I always call my husband to summarize what has just happened because it is too amazing to keep to myself. Well, yesterday after class, I told him I had to read him a sentence from Mo's story, word for word, because a summary just won't do. After we both finally stopped laughing (we had so much trouble stopping), he said, "Wow. You have to put that on Facebook - make it like a teaser, don't give people the whole story quite yet, just put that bit in by itself."

So, all I gotta say is, (a) who doesn't like a good teaser and (b) how awesome is my husband - every day he teaches me to have more fun (c) check out our first ever Teaser on Facebook - it's a classic, it's like teenage drama captured in one innocent sentence... ok, I don't want to spoil it for you... I'll stop talking so you can go read it...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bernice (When I Was Seventeen)

 It's like when a rock star with funky electronic beats unplugs her guitar and suddenly goes acoustic on a special song. The nakedness of the sound is as vulnerable as it is brave.

You can hear everything. Every sigh, every breath.

I never knew a sentence could sound naked too. "I will never forget how much we cared about each other."

I've always known Bernice to be hilarious and witty and cool, but I'd never seen this side of her before. She laid her feelings about her late husband right out there in the open. It takes real courage to speak as plainly as that . I respect her for it.

And her husband - to be showered like this long after he's passed, what an honor.What a lucky, lucky guy.

Bernice Moore

November 12, 2009

My first date was with my husband. He was eighteen. We went to high school together. He was the nice boy on the block. He would always take me to a movie. At that time I had to be home before 11 o'clock. MY dad did tell us not to hang out too late. A few more years me and my husband was married. March 15, 1952. I will never forget how much we cared about each other.
We stayed married for many years. He died Jan 1 in 93. He was 63 years old. I had eleven children by him. 7 boys and 4 girls. One of my sons looks just like him. He is a policeman now. I miss my husband so very much. So much has changed since his passing away. I have 3 sons who was in the army and one daughter. I was very glad that I live to see the day that all of his children turned out alright. My husband will always be in my heart. His family and my family are still very close to one another. My husband's name was David L. Moore and his son David Moore Jr. is just like him.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mo (One Step at A Time)

Alright, we're gonna lighten things up with some elementary school memories here. This one is fun. So boyish, so real. But … how should I put this… let’s just say in the part about fifth grade… well, think fifth grade humor. I cringed, and then I laughed. And cringed again…


November 12, 2009

One Step at A Time

In 4th grade, a tall kid came and told us he was a quarterback and a pitcher. Although I was the shrimp of the class we became best friends and traded comic books. Some people wouldn’t take my comic books because my cousin Johnny kept getting peanut butter and jelly on them.

Johnny was 2 years younger but only a grade behind me. He started school at age 5 but was as big as kids a class or two ahead of him. By 4th grade I was headed to the town  playground after school every day. Sports became my easiest way to make new friends.

As an only child I was more eager to meet new people and sports at the playground was the first step. No adults were around so the older and/or bigger kids kept things kind of organized. No adults were involved during the school year.

By 5th grade basketball became interesting enough that we did work for the janitors at the public school in exchange for time on their basketball court. There was no gym at our Catholic school at the time.

Also in 5th grade a new kid tried to be a bully at the playground. He had flunked once or twice so he was taller and talked tough. My dad had taught me how to box so I punched the bully at the nose in the playground. He became a friend and stopped bullying people.

However he used a crayon from the art period to color his penis which he later exposed during a Spelling Bee. Some of us couldn’t stop from laughing and got kept after school because we wouldn’t say why we were laughing. The girls never let on they knew and I was too shy to even think of asking them.

In 6th grade a tall strong kid named Louie Spuielli came from South Philadelphia and became my best friend of all time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Helen (An Exciting Outing)

This right here is the stuff that memory is made of. Before reading, Helen said to us, “Deidre still talks all the time about this. This meant so much to her.” I know when I heard the story, I didn't want it to end.

Helen H. Lahr

November 12, 2009

It was Wednesday and Deidre, waiting with great excitement, could hardly contain herself. Although this was an outing that occurred at least twice a month, it was always exciting! You see, Mom-mom was coming to take her in town. In town was Market Street. This was a “private trip” including only a grandmother and a very young granddaughter. Finally, after what seemed like hours to Deidre, the bell rang and there was Mom-mom on the front porch.

I stood in the front door watching as they went down the street. Deidre was holding Grandmom’s hand tightly and looking up into her face as they walked along.

They came to the corner where they waited for the trolley car. Finally, the trolley came and they boarded it – by Mom-mom lifting Deidre up the steps. To Deidre the ride into Center City was thrilling. She never tired of it. Then they reached 13th and Market Streets. They exited the bus and entered Woolworth’s Store. They walked to a showcase full of luscious candies. Mom-mom asked Deidre what kind of candy she wanted. “I would like to have the coconut candy with the pink, white and chocolate stripes,” said Deidre. Mom-mom purchased some and gave her the bag containing the goody. Of course, this was like a ritual that was repeated twice a month. Mom-mom would also buy chocolate turtles and hard caramel candy. She always kept a bowl of candy in the center of her kitchen table for busy little fingers.

Next, they would walk into Strawbridge’s Store and head for the bakery where Mom-mom would purchase some of the delicious rolls. You see, Mom-mom would bake hot biscuits every day for Pop-pop. And because, today, she elected to take her granddaughter on an outing, she would heat some of these rolls for dinner for her beloved husband.

It was always a thrill to come to Strawbridge’s because Deidre got to either ride in the elevator or on the escalator steps. Up, up and away they went to the second floor. Mom-mom brought several pretty dresses for her granddaughter to see. Deidre didn’t realize that her grandmother made the final decision as to which dress was bought.

Finally, it was time to eat, so they went to one of the small tables on the main floor. “It was so much fun chatting with my lovely grandmother as we ate our lunch,” Deidre was to remark later.

Still chatting and holding on to her Mom-mom, Deidre was once again lifted onto the bus and was on her way home.

When they arrived home, Deidre rushed into the house to show me her beautiful dress.

Her little face was brimming with happiness!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Palm-Sized Portions

There is the kind of love that brings you to the altar and there is the kind that lets you live happily ever after.

I'm not sure Helen has never said outright, "I loved my husband." She doesn't need to. It's obvious. She still blushes and giggles every time she mentions his name. I've often wondered how she got to be so good at it, at the fine art of marriage. Turns out she got it from her mom.

My mom used to roll out a huge dough every week. Every morning, she would pinch off four little pieces, just the size of her palms, and lay them in the oven. That's because my dad loved warm bread for his breakfast. And of course my sister Irene and I grew to like it too.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chain Reaction

Starting to see a pattern. Whenever one of the seniors says something especially moving, you just feel thoughts bubbling around the classroom table, and then soon, extremely soon, almost immediately, another senior would speak what's on his or her mind, and the spontaneous followup remark, no matter how short, would always be moving as well, in some unexpected way. I guess when Helen finished reading her story, "An Exciting Outing," I was still "in" it, so I was caught off-guard when Mo opened up to us. And remember, Mo is the guy who is proudly Irish and has the thick skin to prove it, who I know can strike up small talk with strangers at the bar or anyone anywhere really, but who has told me he finds it hard to open up to people about his feelings. (That's why here on our blog, he has a pen name - yup, he made up "Mo" for the purpose of this blog - which disguises his nickname, which disguises his real name.) So picture this, Mo, the biggest man at the table, saying this, teary-eyed:

I'm ashamed to say I didn't cry during that story. It brings up so many nice memories from my own life. One day in this class I may cry. I've cried a total of five times in my life, most of them out of anger. You know, it's a privilege to cry.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Most Beautiful Theory in the World

Five minutes into class and the seniors were already into their rowdy party mode. Today's class was filled with capital-letter-m Moments, the type that takes just a minute to unfold but thoroughly blows my mind. I promise I'll get to them on this blog later this week, but this one right here, this one is so beautiful that I can't contain it any longer. I've got to write this down right away so I can remember it fresh and forever. After reading her story "When I was Seventeen," Bernice said:
 If you love a man enough, your son comes out looking exactly like him, so that you can never forget how much you love your husband. Same thing for when a man loves a woman, their daughter comes out looking exactly like the mom. When I see my son Jerome, all I can think of is how much I loved my husband. So much has changed since my husband passed away but I will never forget how much we cared about one another.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Never Fully Grown

Here's the thing with Philly. Sometimes strange things happen. And sometimes they happen so regularly that they get reclassified as normal. Like once a year, the public transportation system goes on strike for plus-or-minus a week. That's what happened last week so a lot of the seniors couldn't even get to the center. I felt bad, imagining them stuck at home in front of a window or TV. By definition the seniors who have made the choice to be part of this center is an ultra social group. They show up to make friends, learn new skills and just have a good time. They'll do what it takes, move around with canes and walkers but they'll get there, rain or shine. In fact, sometimes their fearlessness scares me. I catch myself telling them to be careful when the streets are slippery on a rainy day.

When I walked into the center last week, the lobby and cafeteria felt empty. Not eerily so, but just quieter. Usually the cafeteria is noisy - I can't even pick out one conversation from another, but that day I would say there were less than twenty people. Helen saw me at the doorway and waved me in. She introduced me to her friends Beatrice Bonners and Isadora Fields (btw are those two first-and-last-name combos fantastic or what?) and pretty soon more people joined and we all started chatting. And that's what we ended up doing instead of our usual sit-around-the-classroom-table class. You've gotta give the seniors props for being spontaneous.

So I don’t know how they got started on this, but some of them have high school reunions coming up (so that’d be like sixty-year reunions – I can’t even comprehend that length of time.) I asked them how much people change over that kind of time, and the consensus around the cafeteria table was clear: people look and act the same, but become a little more mature. I don’t why but I thought their response is both funny and profound. Maybe it’s the idea (the relief!) that people never fully mature – we just move a little farther along in that general direction.

Beatrice and Isadora started thinking back about high school, out loud. They actually went to the same high school, but in different years. “The marble stairway,” they squealed like teenage girls, “Remember the marble stairway?” Of course they both remember it vividly. Apparently anyone who set foot (as in literally, as in placing a single foot) on the marble treads got sent right away to the Principal’s Office. No one even knew why the stairway existed or where it led to. It doesn’t seem like Beatrice and Isadora ever bothered to find out the truth. The illusion of danger, I guess, is always more fun than the safety of fact.

They told us about all sorts of random bits and pieces about their school. Pretty soon, they drew a crowd in the cafeteria. A man with two cans of ginger ale rolled over in his wheelchair, making a joke about the extra can of soda and taking a dramatic gulp from each one. A lady with not-a-streak-of-non-white hair scooted her chair a little closer, wordlessly. The women at the table next to us stopped their own conversation and turned to look our way.

Beatrice and Isadora remember that first thing in the morning, they went to homeroom, where they did bible reading, the Pledge of Allegiance, and once in a while sang a little song. They remember the English Teacher who spat on you whenever she talked. And the Principal, he was very thin, too thin. When I asked them whether they liked their English Teacher, Beatrice nodded excitedly and said she tries not to remember teachers she didn’t like.

In a time-travel kind of way, towards the end of the hour, the high school conversation jumped back into the present. They all said that, sometimes, they still feel like they did as teenagers. “But you know,” Beatrice added, “I don’t let my kids know that. They already worry about me too much. I have to remind them who’s Mom. I have to tell them I’m grown.”

She said one time last year, the senior center had a field trip to Delaware. There, her heart problems acted up, so her kids sent her to a hospital in the area and kept her there for a few days. They said to her, “You are not going out of town again.”

“Of course I had to prove them wrong. The next month I went right back,” Beatrice said proudly. Helen was sitting next to her all this time, and I was sitting next to Helen. She whispered to Beatrice, “I think it’s nice they are concerned about you.” Beatrice flashed a knowing smile.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Best Day Blog is now on Twitter and Facebook

If you've been checking back regularly on this blog - thanks so much for the support. To make things easier for you from here on out, I've linked it up to both Twitter and Facebook. Be a Twitter follower or Facebook fan to get automated updates! That's right - our storytelling project is spreading its digital wings. The seniors' voices are too awesome not to be heard.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Helen (Happy Hunters)

Good-old-fashioned teamwork is happening every week behind the scenes of this little blog - I love it! Every week, staff at the senior center scan the seniors' handwritten pages then email them off to volunteer transcribers, and then the volunteers (thanks guys - you are awesome btw) email the typed text back to me to complete the loop.

Jen is one of our volunteers (you've "met" her if you've been reading along.) I like getting emails from her because she sometimes includes a little comment on the story she's just typed up. This is what she wrote me last night. It's so nice. And super well-said. "Attached is Helen Lahr's story from this week. There's something poetic about the way she writes, which I really enjoy - like when she talks about the "Happy Hunters" at the end of this story."  



I was always amused when my sons, along with my father, would go hunting.

Let me go back a number of years. My Dad adored my sister and I (as did our mother), but when my sons were born, he was thrilled. I believe I mentioned earlier that my father loved to hunt and would travel quite a distance to do so.
When my sons grew up, my Dad asked if they could go hunting with him. My husband didn’t mind, but I had always been afraid of guns. At first I refused, but my father was such a nice Dad, I gave in. He purchased rifles for both of them and were they proud of them!

On a morning when they were going hunting, they would get up at the crack of dawn, go down to the car and, ever so gently, put the guns and small stools into the car. All of this was done quietly so as not to disturb the neighbors.

Finally, they would drive away. Upon arriving at their destination, my sons, under the watchful eyes of my Dad, would load their guns with the bullets.

My Dad selected this particular area to bring his grandsons because there were no other hunters there. He and Dwight wandered off, leaving Trevor slightly behind. Remember, Trevor loves animals and had no intention of ever shooting one. He came along only because he loved my Dad dearly and because he knew my Dad loved having him accompany him. Then, too, Trevor enjoyed nature.

At noon, they decided to eat lunch, but just then, Mr. White, the owner of a lot of the farmland, came out and invited them to lunch. There was plenty of nice cool milk to drink!

Finally, it was time to return home. The Happy Hunters sang joyously as they wended their way down the highway. Although they hadn’t caught any animals that day, it had been a most satisfying day for Pop-Pop and his grandsons.

Helen (My First Cruise)

As usual, Helen had done "homework." She opened her notebook and read the title at the top of her first page: My First Cruise.

Immediately, Hattie said, "Oh, another romantic story!" She turned giddy.

"Actually, not this one," Helen said, smiling at her friend, adding to the suspense.

True, if you read the writing on the page, it wasn't intended to be romantic. But when Helen elaborated on it afterwards (just talking through it, not writing more) the story turned out romantic in the end. Helen loved her husband. That much is clear.

My First Cruise


When I was a teenager, I liked to read the society pages of the Sunday newspaper. I miss those days. There were articles describing the "coming out" parties and the "balls." Descriptions of the participants' gowns were given in great detail. I, also, liked to read about the weddings. Sometimes, a few years later, I would recognize the name of a former "ball" young lady. Often the article mentioned that the couple was spending their honeymoon on a cruise.

I hoped that someday I could go on a cruise. The opportunity came years later when our children were adults. An organization to which I belong made plans to go to Bermuda. My older son looked at me, smiling, and told me to start to pack my bags. To say I was elated is putting it mildly. It was to be an all-expenses-paid trip.

My daughter was accompanying me. She was as excited as I was. We had a lot of fun choosing what we were to wear.

In the designated day we boarded the huge Galileo ship. Almost immediately we were shown how to use life preservers. Then, we were free to enjoy ourselves. We soon forgot that we were on the water. There was even a movie, a library and a casino, among other things aboard the ship. Then we docked in Bermuda. The ship was our hotel.

Bermuda was beautiful - flowers, trees and plants were everywhere. The people were very friendly and we enjoyed broawsing. We especially liked the jewelry. At night we saw some very good shows in the theater. The Captain's Ball was fabulous!

When we returned home we couldn't stop talking about "The Cruise!"

The writing ended there. As Helen finished reading her last word, she looked up and in the same breath, continued telling us more. The highlight was really the Captain's Ball, she told us. The Captain was so handsome. He stood in the receiving line and danced with everyone who would dance. He had a white uniform on, complete with a white cap with gold trim. When Helen went home, she told her husband all about the Ball and the Captain.

He said, "I'm glad you came back to me."

She said, "He wasn't you."

Hattie and Helen (The Lighter Things)

I don't know if you can tell from the picture, but Helen and Hattie have become great friends through the class. I like it when they say that they are drawn to each other because they are both attracted to the lighter things in life. Devastating memories, bad days, give them anything - and they can give you a happier way to look at the situation. If you ask either one of them, is your life full? They don't have to think before they answer yes. Now that's very, very cool. When they talk about the imperfect bits of their lives - they have each lost a son - they just take a breath and say, well, not everything can be perfect all the time. (They'd say this in a quiet, focused way like they are just thinking out loud. They both do this.) They've told me about how they became friends a few times already - they just did, that's how. In the senior center, they spotted each other and just knew they shared that little something. I'm not sure there is a word for this. I don't think "optimism" covers it. I think it is much gentler, much lighter than that.