Thursday, December 31, 2009

Come, I Love You So Truuuuu-ue

I could say I wish you were there after every class but I have been saving it for the day when I really need to say it. Today is that day.

We didn’t even have class. It was slippery out, and it’s New Year’s Eve – as expected, the entire building was practically empty, except for maybe twenty people, including staff who was wrapping up their work to take off early. So instead of hiding out in our classroom, our group thought we would just sit around a table in the lobby and chat. In the background, we heard a man playing the piano ever so softly, the volume you use when you’re just playing music for yourself to hear. (I would soon find out that his name is Arthur – my new friend.) One by one, we turned our chairs towards him. Arthur, who had been standing over the keyboard, took a seat on the piano bench. His fingers hit the keys a little louder and with a jazzier groove. Bill took off his sweatshirt and put on his glasses. He walked over to the piano, leaned against it, and started singing. The piano was not glamorous. It was a small, wooden upright in an inconspicuous part of the lobby – I had never noticed it before today. Arthur kept playing – at this point he had started slipping fills into the music – and started singing as well. Dolores had put on her purple coat on her way out, but returned and removed her coat after telling the van driver that she would take the van an hour later. She wanted to stay a little longer today. She started singing too. I didn’t really know the songs they were doing. All I knew was it was live bluesy music, and I loved it. Mo told me this kind of music is called Doo-wop. With a few 60s love songs thrown in between. I couldn’t help myself. I had to join in. They taught me a whole bunch of stuff. I can’t tell you the song names because they didn’t know them when I asked. They just knew the melodies and the words. They made me the lead. They said, Just flow with the melody, then make up the words. Arthur stood up from the piano so we could cluster up to rehearse an a cappella tune – Bill was intent on getting the harmony on this one line perfect so we never sang the full song. “Come, I love you so truuuuu-ue.” I googled this when I got home. I have no idea what song that line is from. I don’t really care. I was having so much fun. By the end of the hour, the entire lobby was on its feet, clapping, harmonizing, inserting yeah, yeah’s between lines, singing spontaneous solos, blending together songs, making up entire songs from scratch. When the senior center’s van returned to pick Dolores up, I said I had to go too. Everyone group-hugged and high-fived and exchanged Happy New Years. I really wish you were there.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Top 10 Countdown

With the peace of Christmas still lingering in the air and the excitement of the New Year (woohoo!) right about to kick in, I just want to take a second to say thanks to you for reading this blog. It means a lot to me and – I know for a fact – to the seniors that you are taking the time out of your busy schedules to listen to stories from their past. Especially to those of you whom I’ve never met in real life, it blows my mind that we’re connected across who-know-what-distance through this little collection of words.

I know for me, being in virtual dialogue with you has become a sort of therapy for me. The routine for me is peaceful. As I stared into the fireplace late last night after eating too much food and getting too many gifts (seriously and seriously!), I realized I should write a quick note to let you know that.

And what end-of the-year toast is complete without a little countdown to ring in the new year? Here is a look at some of my favorite things that the seniors have said.

By 6th grade some of the girls had smiles that distracted me from daydreaming which was my main activity at school.
- Mo, “Girls”

Good afternoon everyone: welcome to the inner chamber of my life.
- Ernestyne, “Ernestyne”

I just write whatever comes out. So some of this may not make any sense… You know, I’ve never shown this to anyone before.
-Henrietta, “Henrietta’s Notebook”

This. I couldn't write that this was the, the happiest moment of my life. Because I wrote about my son. And I have to say, one of the, because then I had two other lovely children... You want me to read it? I wrote a lot.
-Helen, “A Mother’s Pride”

I brought all these things to help me remember. Look.
-Christine, “Christine”

I went into this restaurant. I was the only black person there, and the white people were cracking up. The waitress said, what do you want to order? I said, give me some black and white grits. She said, we have no such thing on the menu. I said, you have a sign here that says black, and a sign there that says white, so I want both. I want everything black and white. And I had all the people laughing. I pointed to the white section and told the waitress, see how good the meat looks? I am paying the same price. I don't want mine all cut up. I don't want something you're about to put in the garbage. Some leftovers from yesterday? Uh, uh, baby, not me. Slice me some nice stuff. I told her, I am no garbage disposal.
-Bernice, “Black and White Grits”

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.
-Hattie, “Riches”

Of course everyone has a little heartbreak. Losing both my parents, losing a child, there are some events that I still haven’t gotten over yet. But I have, and I do have, a lot of happiness in my life. I do. I have happiness.
-Helen, “Detox”

One day in this class I may cry. I've cried a total of five times in my life.
-Mo, “Chain Reaction”

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.
-Bernice, “The Most Beautiful Theory in the World”

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hattie (Growing Up is Hard to Do)

A revelation and a confession (my husband’s revelation about me this weekend and my confession that it is true): I like cartoons... and not just any cartoons, the ones meant for four-year-olds. I don’t know what my problem is. I am regressing, I think.

Listening to seniors’ stories and challenging myself to think through them by keeping this blog has really helped me come to terms with the reality of aging. I’m excited. Like I’m training for some marathon. I am hitting 30 next year so this is my mental preparation, so I can hit the ground (of course I’m not calling it a hill, no way is aging a downhill thing!) running.

But no matter what head games I play, there is always going to be a part of me who doesn’t want to grow up. Growing up is hard to do, Hattie is right. And maybe it’s alright for me to admit it and laugh about it too.

Hattie Lee Ellerbe

Growing up is Hard to Do!

In spite of the many hardships my family endured coming up, I never wanted to be “grown”.  I wanted to stay a child and “play, play, play”.  I thought if I could do as I pleased, I could be happy for the rest of my life.

I quickly learned, as a teenager, this was not possible.  The responsibilities of getting an education and completing high school became a priority for me.

Being a middle child always made me “special”.  I was little sister to my two older sisters and big sister to my two little sisters.

Since I was the tallest of all my sisters, hand me down dresses were always too short and in “my wildest imagination” too worn . . . but I had to wear them any way.  My two older sisters were always nice and neat.  My two younger sisters were always nice and neat.  Because I was a tom boy, wearing four year old “hand me down”, there was nothing to hand down to my little sisters.  Grandmom never let me forget how “rough” I was on shoes and clothes.  If I hadn’t been so proud of my even, white teeth, I would have told her that the clothes were worn out when I got them.

Being a middle child was different for me because I was the only one out of five sisters who graduated in the fall.  The other four graduated in June.  Grandmom was horrified and declared she never heard of anybody graduating in the winter . . . even though I managed to do it 3 times.

I rode bikes, played marbles, boxed boys and played boy games.  No one ever thought I would grow up to be a girl.  One of my “boyfriends” even said to me “Hattie Mae” if I had known you were going to grow up to be a “girl”, I would have introduced you to some boys.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Sidewalk Encounter

Snow has been falling all morning here in Philadelphia. The sidewalks look like they are putting on layer after layer of fresh white sweaters. Weather outside is frightful, as the song goes, but you gotta admit it is so, so, so gorgeous.

All the classes at the senior center are taking a two-week break for the holidays.* The other day I thought I’d swing by the senior center any way in case any of my buddies showed up for our class accidentally. On my way there, I saw Mo who did forget that there was no class. “But I’m glad I bumped into you because I have something to tell you,” he said. “My ladyfriend saw the website yesterday and loved it. She hasn’t got through it yet, but she will, I am sure she will.” It was chilly out but we stayed chatting for a good several minutes. Mo doesn’t use the computer but his ladyfriend does, he had told me that before. She has email and everything. “I just wanted to tell you that I finally showed her what I've been writing,” Mo said again, beaming. “I wish you could’ve seen her. She couldn’t take her eyes off the screen. And she couldn't stop laughing. She was finding out things she had never known about me. I hadn’t seen her laugh like that for a long time. And she wants to call all my kids this week and show them how to get on the website.” He promised me he would tell me what his kids say.

I felt tears in my eyes. I don’t know if it was what he said or how excited he was. Or the image of this family getting just a tiny little bit closer this Christmas, even though I got the sense that they may not be spending it in the same place. Standing there on the chilly city sidewalk, it was the first moment I really felt like it’s a week till Christmas.

(*Even though the physical class is taking a quick break, this blog is paddling along. I still have a few more stories from previous weeks to show you. And for those of you who are newer to the blog, I was thinking that I can do some “highlights” from previous stories too. Alright, gotta stop typing so I can head out to put my feet in that fluffy snow…)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mo (Hugs, Kisses, and Playground Games)

I can’t believe how much Mo has changed within a few short months. He’s become so comfortable opening up to us. In the beginning, it wasn’t that he was reserved, he was just guarded. He told me he had never tried to write, let alone write about his feelings.

But if you’ve been reading along, you can see how much he’s willing to tell us. He’s practically working on a tell-all of his life, starting from his childhood, and now moving on to his adolescence. He’s been waiting to show this blog to his kids, he tells me, but now he’s about ready. He wants to have written enough for them to read so that they would be adequately surprised. He’s never been able to tell these stories to them. (In fact, lately, I notice that he’s been calling his writing “chapters” not “stories” – that’s how I know he’s really on a mission.) His kids are the reason he’s doing any of this. He’s so proud of himself, I can tell, because he knows all this – the fact that he is opening up, the fact that he has a mission – will make his kids proud of him.

Now, Mo comes to class early and stays late. After class, when I step out to xerox what everyone had written for the day, he would remain in the room, writing more. And when I return to the room to organize my papers, he would stay to chat with me about how much he’s enjoyed the other seniors’ stories that day.

The nuns seemed to mention “The Occasions of Sin” more often than in 5th grade but I was a sheltered only child who just realized that more than hugs and kisses were in my daydreams but nothing that seemed sinful.

A girl named Gail was very attractive but when we were close at recess she smiled and her teeth were covered in a film and something between her teeth and gums that actually repelled me. I thought about asking one of my girl cousins to suggest she brush her teeth but I never did. Gail left the school later that year. The teacher wrote letters to my parents about my attempts to read library books during class by hiding them inside my text books. When caught I would have to stand out in the corridors until the next subject came up. As my grades were very good nothing else was done. It was so boring.

At the town playground we sometimes formed teams to play against the Cub Scouts and teams from other playgrounds. No adults were involved in these games.

Louie Spinelli, Snuffy Flynn and John Brennan made varsity football, basketball, and baseball teams but I was neither big enough or good enough to compete with the 8th and even 7th graders. There were no junior varsity teams but we became pretty good competing on the playgrounds and sneaking into the public school and various Protestant church basketball courts.

By this time we had moved out of the Little Italy neighborhood and in to an apartment on top of Dan’s Barber Shop on the hill leading to the bridge for automobiles and people which connected the North and South sides of the town divided by the railroad tracks.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bernice (And Now, onto Heavier Topics)

If there’s a scale that measures funny, where amusing is a 3, entertaining is a 5, and hilarious is an 8, Bernice would bust the scale at some double-digit. She’s in a league of her own. The other day, she made me laugh so hard that I tossed my body back in my seat. “Look, you fainted,” she commented right away with the straightest face. After those little words, my laughter tripled in intensity and became officially unstoppable…

But, once in a while, in the middle of all the goofing around, when you least expect it, she would move without warning onto heavier topics. I don’t know what I’m more amazed by – that she’s gutsy enough to talk about these things, or that she injects just enough humor for them to be bearable.

Here are a few things Bernice told us the other day, while writing. (She can’t help talking when she writes, which by the way, is pretty funny.) She’d look up every so often and make comments like these and then return (oh yes, straight-faced) to her page, leaving the rest of us in silent awe. Two seconds later – when we regain consciousness – someone would say, “Bernice, what you just said was amazing.” And all she would say is, “Really?”

Pop would come home at night; Ma would have a list of who’d been bad. I was always at the top of the list. All the parents knew what time school got out and if you weren’t back at the house a certain time after that, you’d better watch out. How come they said when they were whipping you, that it hurt them more than it hurt you? Pop would take all his belts out from the basement and ask me to choose. I said I didn’t want to choose. He said I had to choose. He beat the daylight out of me. How could it hurt him more?

We had a mean teacher. She was so mean. We said good morning. She didn’t say good morning back. That was how mean she was. I don’t know what kind of a husband she had. But she took it out on us kids.

One time the doctor said I didn’t have much longer left to live. Well, the doctor could say anything he wanted but God is the head doctor, you know. So I said to God, fine, let your Will be done. Ha! Turned out He’s not done with me yet. You know what I don’t understand? When I was at the hospital, I walked by other people laying in their beds cursing God – I could hear them from the halls – now why would they do something so stupid? That’s the last person you should be cursing. You should be praying. You shouldn’t give up on yourself. Let your last words – if they are your last words – be nice ones.

(Want to read more? Check out the Blog Archive for the older post "Black and White Grits". Watch Bernice tackle civil rights!)

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Class felt nice today. We went half an hour overtime and we could have kept talking for hours more. Hattie said, “They must think we’re giving out money in here. We always leave the room with huge, silly grins on our faces.”

Today was one of those days when everyone had powerful thoughts that kept rolling and rolling. No one talked over one another. The seniors took turns reading, speaking and listening. And no matter who spoke, he or she got everyone else’s full attention.

I remember at some point, Helen said, “Of course everyone has a little heartbreak. Losing both my parents, losing a child, there are some events that I still haven’t gotten over yet. But I have, and I do have, a lot of happiness in my life. I do. I have happiness.”

What could you say to something so profound? Except – nothing. Saying nothing was the only appropriate thing the rest of us could do. And that’s what we did. Hattie, already moved to tears – was the first one who started clapping. Then the rest of us joined. We just sat around the table and clapped. I mean, where else can I sit in a circle with other people and just clap about the sheer power of a thought? It felt nice. Nice like spa-nice. Detox-nice. Feel-good-about-yourself-and-humanity-nice.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Henrietta (Yes But)

Hope you don't mind I'm dedicating this week's blog posts to Henrietta. Just thought I'd try something different this time around, and more importantly because her writing needs it, it demands center stage. Below is a sampler of her poems - we'll start off with an edgy one, then a softer one, then finish off with a nice, simple one about the senior center itself. BTW is "Yes But" the greatest title of all time or what? When a poem has that for a title, it's gotta be read. Oh yeah, I'm all for judging a book by its cover and a poem by its title!

Yes But

You got to go day to day.
I want to know, how will you
Go from day to day? Oh! Life is
An all day thing, 24 hours of
Heaven or hell!

When life's one hell it's full of hate
Each moment is worse than Death
Could be your fate.
As others live past Hours of Life.

But who said Life is fair?

Many only like Hypnotized life.
Life so
Deeply Hypnotized all Life long.
Strung out on Emotional Highs
And Lows that can kill Elephants.

And there is one other thing.
You will be here
From one day to the Next.
And Night
And Winter Can be Long or Cold
And nobody tells you come October!
How no one really gets out alive!

Yes but? You got to go day
To Day.
I Want to know. How will you go
From to day to day?
Oh! Life is an all day thing. 24 hours
Of Heaven or Hell!

Roses Not Ashes

If  I did not have ashes
There will be no roses
Now that's a phenomenon
I've no words for this
I'm part the push.

The prayer is all up in the answers.

To all my prayers
To all my prayers
Source has answered all my payers
While I get there.

While I can see, and smell the
Roses After years of Ashes
Now we live days of Roses
I glorify source Moment by Moment.

For days of Living Roses not Ashes
Welcome the Holy Ghost have
Your way in the Days of
Roses Not
Ashes. Looking back at my life

Through all of the Ashes days
I Bless Source for His
Presence, Power, and Plenty, and the
Loss of Days of Ashes to get the
Days of Living Roses. Praise God
For the days of Living Roses.
Angels please take this to the next level.


At the corner of the future is
Like a shining path. You see it.
There it was a light. Help in hope and prosperity.
And there it is. At the corner of the
Future is P.S.C. Philadelphia Senior Center.
A place of hope at a time when you must find
Like minded people, to join, to build your future.
Never before now, and all over 60 years old.
You need a place to be, do, and create.
Times have changed. See globe financial crisis?
Be real, be each globe change.
See you There in the future!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Henrietta's Notebook - Continued

I wish I could flash back time and take you with me so you could feel what I felt when I held Henrietta's notebook pages in my hands. These scans give you an idea, I hope, of the way her pen went over and over the pages and sometimes poked through, the slight wrinkles, the occasional bent edges... The pages contain so much thought that they felt almost heavy.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Henrietta's Notebook

Papers were spilling out of Henrietta’s notebook yesterday. It was impossible to hide my curiosity: “What’s all that?”

“Oh, these? Just some thoughts I’ve been having.”

“Can I see?”

“Sure,” she answered right away.

She seemed glad that I asked. It was almost like she wouldn’t have mentioned anything if I hadn’t noticed, but she'd clearly brought the papers in to show us. One by one, she handed me the pages, her glance lingering across their surfaces as they left her hands. I could tell they meant something to her.

Soon, she produced an entire mound of papers, each packed with dense handwriting in every possible direction, filling rows and margins. Here and there numbers are sprinkled among words – I couldn’t tell what for. At the end of some of the paragraphs are heart outlines with smiley faces. I wouldn’t have pegged her as the smiley-face type. She is more intellectual than bubbly. Earlier in the lobby she had been reading a National Geographic article about Russia. Last week she had been telling me about the significance of the year 2010 in the Mayan calendar. Besides this writing class, she is also learning French and Spanish at the senior center.

All the pages contain writing, and some are layered with magazine cutouts too. Mad, dense cutouts. This stuff is raw and intense. This is no random scribble.

Helen exclaimed, “Look at the thought you put into that.” Her eyes were wide. I am sure mine were too.

In response, Henrietta apologized, “When I write, I don’t stop to proof read. I just write whatever comes out. So some of this may not make any sense.” And then, she turned to me, “Can you help me read this out loud? When it is cold, I have trouble seeing.”

She went into her purse to retrieve her reading glasses anyway.

Neither she nor I could decipher all the handwriting, so we ended up reading together, our backs bent over the table, our faces smelling the words – here and there we had no choice but to make up filler words on the spot. “Maybe the computer can spellcheck this for you when you put this up on the internet,” she said.

“You mean it is ok for all this to go on the blog?”

“Sure. That’s why I brought it in.”

“Henrietta, this is just - wild. This poetry. These collages. When you think random thoughts, they come right out like this, as poetry?” I didn’t know what to say so I kept repeating, “This is wild, this is wild.”

“You know, I’ve never shown this to anyone before.”


“No. I guess I never had the chance to but I keep doing this for myself.”

What an honor it is to see her work and then share it here online with all of you. Right now, as I write this blog post, our trusty volunteers are scanning her collages and typing up her poems – can’t wait to add them to the blog later this week for you to see.

Henrietta inspires me.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mo (Girls)

Read at your own risk... oh yes read it, read it, all I'm saying is, my jaw was wide open by the end of this one. Here's Mo recalling in detail (and uh-huh I mean PG13-rated detail) the trials and tribulations of his first teenage years. Poor Mo. OK now - brace yourself for a little shock and a lot of heart.
By 6th grade, some of the girls had smiles that distracted me from daydreaming which was my main activity at school. Slipping library looks inside the text books also had gotten me through the awful boredom. A desire to stay awhile in the cloakroom at the back of the classroom with a girl in my grade remained unfulfilled. At the playground, a few of the Irish girls would play a little baseball or basketball with their brothers and the rest of us. At one corner of the huge playground was a garage for town trucks and about 25 cement tunnel pieces which were perfect for sixth graders to hug and kiss in. We all wondered if we were the one Sally liked the best. These encounters were incredibly innocent although the word BONER was coming into the conversation at times. Connecting the protrusion in my knickers to sex had still not occurred to me.