Friday, January 29, 2010

Helen (A Letter to Our Readers)

Helen is too, too nice. This is a little something she wrote just for you, yes you, as in YOU, who are reading this on your computer screen right now. Before reading out loud in class, she said, “I didn’t write much, but I want you to know, I mean it.” By the time she got to the end, my face was in my hands. My head was full of inexplicable emotions… happy doesn’t even begin to cover them…

Dear Readers,

It is my understanding that many of you are not only reading our stories, but that you are enjoying and often times, relating to them. When I was told this, I felt quite warm and thrilled all over :)

You see, when I first saw the new writing class listed as “The Best Day of My Life So Far” in our weekly newsletter at the Senior Center that I attend, my first thought was to see what it was like. Some classes can be very disappointing but this one, led by Benita Cooper, is so interesting I can barely wait until the next week comes around. We write about our experiences, both personal and otherwise. Often we just talk about them. There is also a lot of humor in our class.

Our class is growing in numbers. We even have a set of twin sisters!

I am so glad that Benita readily accepted when we asked her to remain with us – instead of leaving when the scheduled six weeks ended.

As a matter of fact, speaking of how much we enjoy the class and finding it so difficult to wait until the next class, when we meet (in passing at the Center) we might say:

“Are you coming to the class on Thursday?”

Or, “Did you write something for class?”

“Did you hear what Mo wrote about?”

“I like that class but we don’t have enough time.”

And to make it even more delightful, it seems as if we’ve always known our lovely Benita.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Henrietta (Trauma of the Past)

Henrietta thinks in the form of poems. She’s never filled a page with normative sentences.

Once upon a time, her poetry used to describe intellectual observations of things outside of her life. But now, she uses her poetry to communicate the most private of feelings.

And after reading out loud, no matter how heartwrenching a particular poem may be, she always smiles. Always. Like she’s let out what she’s been waiting a long time to let out.

God, heal me from the trauma of my past.
Never had a loving father to this day
I am ashamed of all the pain of never being cared for.
No one was there for me. God, do you feel my pain?
Free me from it. Draw out every one of many pains.
God, please heal me from all my life’s pains.

Many times I look at people who are worse off
Than I am and I still feel my pain.
I say to myself ,“Great, I’m not as bad off as they are”
But my pain remains. It’s the story of my life’s entire trauma.
It always remains. God, heal me from the trauma of my past.
They say, “Get over it! It was a long time ago.”
They say, “Suck it up! Roll with the punches,
Pretend that nothing is wrong with you.”
You see? But how, can I believe in God,
When God’s representation on earth never showed me love?

I understand my father’s trauma! Slavery and all.
He did the best he could. He tried o so hard.
But our family’s condition was set up
Before we all were born
So trauma and pain of the past lives on.

God heal me from the trauma of the past.
Never having a loving father to this day,
I am hardened by all the pain.
For no one was ever there for me.
The pain.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bernice and Beatrice (Good Old Days)

It was several weeks ago when I first met Beatrice. We were at the cafeteria – when I’m early to the senior center and it’s not time for class yet, I usually stop at the cafeteria to chat with my buddies for a little bit. I talked to Beatrice for an entire minute assuming she was Bernice, who’s been coming to class since its very beginning. A roaring laugh erupted behind me. I turned around and saw Bernice. “You thought she was me?” she sounded so proud, “That’s my twin sister. My twin sister!” Since then Beatrice has been coming to class regularly too.

Yesterday, Beatrice said, “I’m gonna write ‘bout the Good Old Days.” Bernice said right away, “Oh? The Good Old Days, I like that. I’ll write about that too.”

They love each other. I can’t really explain it more than that. Sisterhood is a special thing - those of us who have sisters know!

Beatrice Newkirk, born 1933

The Good Old Days (The forties and up to the fifties)

The forties was the war years.  In those days, we had so many rules to go by.  When you was a child, you acted like a child, spoke as a child.  When you became grown, you put away your childish things.  You had to respect the people who was raising you.  You had to do things you was told to do.  You never could ask why.  Going to school was a must.  Going to church was for everybody.  You was taught about God at an early age.  There was only one TV in each household.  In the early years, there was no electric lights, only oil lamps.  Food was brought and put in the ice box.  In order to keep food cold, you had to look for the ice man.  As far as heat, we had a cold stove.  You had to make a fire.  It was called a pot belly stove.  For cooking, we used a big stove.  It had four holes in it.  You still needed the wood and also the coal.  The stores was called Mom and Pop stores.  Most of the time, we walked to school.  When going to school, we carried our lunch.  Later years, we ate lunch in the schools.  The weather in those days was very hard.  When we had snow storms, they was bad, very bad.  The schools was not closed because of the storms.

Bernice Moore, born 1933

Good Old Days   
The good old days: going to the movies, going to the parks,
Playing games with the kids in the neighborhood.  Everyone was nice.
And, listening to the fights on the radio.  Joe Louis & other fighters.
Buying hot dogs & hamburgers - both was 15 cents & 25 cents.  Shoes was $5.00.  Ice cream sandwich was 15 cents.
 Going to school, there was fighting.  But everyone made up.  There was no shooting.  Older folks was respected.  Everyone looked but for one another.  The boys played marbles.  The girls jump rope.  Some teachers was mean during the war years.  We had to get tin cans and scrap metal.  They was needed for the war airplanes & ships and a lot of other things.  A lot of guys was drafted into the army.  They was at the age of 18 to 40 years.

Bernice finished before her sister so she asked me what else I wanted to hear about. “Want to tell me more about the radio?” “Oh yeah! The radio!” She flipped to the next page and wrote more.

Bernice Moore

The Radio       

The radio was the size of a big box.  It was good to have because you hear about the war & other things.  Everyone had one.  Most of all, the war news was important.  Some of the loved ones was overseas, my brother was over there.  It was sad to hear that some of the men was from their hometown was killed.  The reason we have war is because everyone do not agree with things.  They even had the small radio you could carry in your hand.  It was good to have one after school.  We would run home to hear the news.  Some was good & some was bad.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Being Old is Good

Just found this and thought I should share. It's a little something I wrote in English class back in sixth grade (I was growing up in Hong Kong at the time - you may notice the British spellings.) I like what the teacher said, at the end: "Indeed!" And I like how I said with full-on belief: Being old is good. I don't actually remember writing all this. But I'm glad I found it. I don't know what to make of it. But I want to save it. And keep thinking about it. The photo is from class today. Class is amazing in a different way each time. Today it was like... a big fat Sunday newspaper... full of enlightening stories but in its fullness, surprisingly relaxing... makes me feel reconnected with the giant world... I can't wait to tell you all about it in the next few posts.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bernice (Days Down in the South)

To be plainspoken. That is a lost art.

The pressure is high these days to be politically correct. I'm all for being nice but it's just hard to keep up with all the padded words. Instead of black, it's PC to say African-American. Instead of black-and-white... ooo... that's a big no no, you have to list every single category on the census form, where there are 20 multiple choice answers (at my last count...) including "Other". Of course this month even the Census Bureau has announced that it is confused - it is working on figuring out whether "Negro" sounds right or wrong. People are getting fired up all over TV about this. Getting in fights in order to achieve politcal correctness - that's just so bizarre.

And then I listen to how the seniors talk. And wow, it's refreshing. Bernice tells it like it is. You don't see people brave enough to talk like that anymore. So maybe (don't hate me for saying this!) it's ok to speak in black-and-white terms. As long as it's spoken out of kindness.
The year 1950, my husband was at Fort Bennie. He was there 3 years. I could not get used to the signs saying Black or White. Some people were nice, some were mean. There were some places you could not go because of your color. They had people who were called the KKK. They made sure that if you were black you could not go in places that were white. But I met a lot of white people who were nice. Going to church was a must thing. I was glad to get back home. Here I could go to places without any trouble. I am so glad to be back home, which is Phila. I hope people would get along with one another not by color but getting to know one another and understanding how far to go.

Monday, January 18, 2010


You know what, with this whole project, I have mad passion but I’m powerless as one person. And today, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, I want to say a word of thank you to my band of volunteers for supporting me behind the scenes. I haven’t actually met any of them in person (and there is something magical about that, don’t you think?) but I’ve gotten to know some of them pretty well over email. Curtis who is not only an established attorney but also a talented gardener told me a story over email the other day, that he said it’d be alright to share here:

I once went with a friend to Florida to visit a 105 year-old relative of theirs, Jennie.  Well, Jennie and I immediately hit it off, but while talking with her, I realized that, in all the time I had spent with my own grandmother, I had never really asked her any questions (she lived to just 3 months shy of 105).

As a kind of penance for this, I decided that I should ask Jennie something I could have asked my own grandmother, but didn't.  After some quick pondering, I clumsily asked, "Jennie, what is the biggest change you've seen in your lifetime?"

This sharp-as-a-tack woman with a beautiful face didn't skip a beat in responding to me, "People don't treat each other with respect."

In one simple sentence that little sagacious woman had pinpointed the apex of the pyramid of 20th century dysfunction.  It doesn't really matter if one is discussing fashion, politics, education, taxicabs, retail, employment, religion… or any other subject… Jennie had singlehandedly identified, to me at least, the behavioral cancer which has had the broadest effect on life as we know it over the past century.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Henrietta (Haiti)

“I write too fast,” Henrietta said yesterday, coyly, as she handed me a thick, crunchy stack of papers.
“You have a lot on your mind, don’t you?” I said.
“Yeah, too much. I’m glad I can clear my mind here,” she added. “But it’s hard to read, I know.”

She has told me before that her wrists act up when the weather gets cold. For the most part, her handwriting borders illegible. She and I really have to guess our way through the pages, which all contain poems. She doesn’t usually remember what she’s written so she asks me to make it up with her as we read it together.

“My blood pressure is really high, the doctor said. He just gave me extra medicine for it.” I was looking down at the pages when she suddenly said this. I looked up. She had tears in her eyes. Just a little. And her voice was a little shaky. “I’ve been watching TV and the news on Haiti upsets me, it makes my blood pressure rise. I go to turn off the TV and turn on the radio. And then the same news come on the radio. So then I turn off the radio and open my notebook. This. Is therapy.”

Greetings from Henrietta Faust writing to say, I am
Feeling for Haiti. And I want
To do something to help Haiti.
But. There is Nothing I Can do.
So I’m writing to say how I
Feel. I am so glad there

Is the writing workshop.
Imagine. What it would
Be like without the senior center?
So I’m writing also to Thank

All the readers and writers.
So keep reading and writing.
Keep writing, everyone.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Linda and Bernice (Two First Dates)

I’m such a diehard romantic that when I looked at today’s date, my first thought, was, oh, it’s a month till Valentine’s Day, and I wished my husband happy-one-month-till. Sappy, I know! To mark the “occasion”, it’s only appropriate that I post a couple of first date stories. One is by Linda, whom you just met in yesterday’s post; the other is by Bernice. And it’s not just sappy stuff. (There’s some pain, the joking kind but also the real kind. Think swollen lips and wartime goodbyes.)

Linda Riley

My First Date

My first date was in the summer before 9th grade. It was with Wayne Evans. He was a year older than me, and had an older brother. We had been hanging out together at the pool playing tetherball and swimming. I don’t remember how it came about that we went to the movies, but we did. My mother and my Aunt Pat went too. They sat in the very back row. At the time I thought it was to give us the illusion of being alone together in the movie theater. Now I realize it was probably so they could keep an eye on us.

I don’t know who picked the movie either. It was The Unsinkable Molly Brown. (I think it starred Shirley MacLaine.) I still remember bits of it – a long staircase and a lot of singing. The movie was an afternoon matinee.

I don’t think my mother and Aunt Pat accomplished much by sitting in the back row because Wayne and I spent a lot of time alone in the living room that summer, kissing. He wanted to try out some things his older brother taught him, like (what I later learned was) French kissing. But I thought you might get pregnant that way so I kept my teeth clenched tightly closed. As a result I spent a lot of time that summer with bruised and swollen lips.

Bernice Moore

My First Date

My husband was my sweetheart. We went to movies and parks and some days we went dancing. The best movie was Cowboys and Indians, and Gone with the Wind, and a lot of army movies. Going downtown and looking in the stores. Going to the zoo and looking at the animals. We did that too. I lived in South Philly. The movies were playing on North Broad Street. There was a drugstore we stopped on the way to get ice cream and cake. We met other guys and girls. Everyone was nice to one another.

PS. When the war came a lot of the guys went to the war. Some got killed. That was sad. My husband and I were married 60 years. He died Jan 1, 1993. I miss him very much.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Linda (Classmate For A Day)

Last week we had a special visitor to our class. Linda Riley, the Director of Communications and Legislative Affairs at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. When I introduced Linda by her title, I swear, all the seniors sat a little straighter in their seats, like nervous schoolkids who just realized their principal had walked into the classroom. But Linda saved the day. She assured them she was just there as their classmate. Immediately shoulders relaxed in unison and a tingly coziness filled the room. That’s what I really meant when I said she’s special. She genuinely cares about people. I like that about her.

After class, Linda and I brainstormed over coffee about ways PCA can help our class and blog grow, which includes an upcoming profile of the class in the senior newspaper Milestones. (I won’t lie. I am excited.) I asked if she would write a little something about her impressions of the class, and today she emailed me this ... leaving me blushing in front of my computer screen...

I originally thought I was coming to observe the class, but once I got there I was caught up in the enthusiasm of the students, and decided that I would become a “classmate-for-a-day.” On the day I visited, there were five students besides me. “Mo,” who described himself as an Irishman (using various adjectives to further illuminate his character) was by far the most talkative and exuberant. He shared opinions on everything from race to religion, politics, flirtation – some Irishmen I know would have said he had “kissed the Blarney stone” because he surely had the gift of gab.

Bernice was no shrinking violet, though – she was kind enough to reprise, for my benefit, her wonderful story about the Black and White Grits she ordered in a segregated Southern restaurant when her husband was stationed in the South. And she had brought her twin sister, Beatrice, who was more shy but in the end did read us what she had written, which was about her “United Nations” family.

Helen was mostly quiet, but did offer her parents’ wisdom, which was that everyone should be treated the same. That was the same lesson my parents taught me – my mother would say that a lady is someone who treats everyone she meets like a lady (or gentleman).

Henrietta found a seat away from the table, and didn’t join in the conversation, but she wrote intently the entire time and eventually read a poem about food and culture that was a little cryptic, but seemed to me like it would fit right in to the Fringe Festival.

And there was “Benita the Beneficent” – that’s my title for her because she was the kindest, gentlest and most thoughtful teacher I’ve ever encountered. That must be why all of the students in her class are so willing to share some of their most intimate and precious thoughts and experiences.

As for me, sad to say I was only a student for one day – but I was inspired to write the story of my first date.  And I met six unforgettable people, which is quite an accomplishment for one day!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Beatrice (United Nations)

Nations don't get more united than this. World peace doesn't get more real than this. Or more modest.

My grandkids are all mixed. They come from different places. All have different things about them. I have a lot of things to talk about. How they lived and what they did in their countries. I like how they did their work. What they believed in and how they lived. What we take for granted, they rejoice in.

Among other places, my grandkids are from:
Africa (goat meat, smoked fish)
The Phillipines (rice)
Puerto Rico

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Different Like Flowers

Amazing what stories can do. Amazing how they can ease us into topics that are otherwise too big to handle. The other day, we talked a lot about culture. And it all began with a little joke about smoked fish.

Bernice brought her twin sister (twin sister!) Beatrice to class. Beatrice started telling us about her twelve kids, who all married spouses from all different cultures. Having a potluck with them is like sampling the cuisines of the world. She said when one of her daughter-in-laws – the one from Africa – smokes fish, you have to wear a gas mask at the house. “But oh, it’s worth it. The food turns out delicious!” Then she added, with gleaming eyes, “I have my own United Nations at home.”

Bernice, our star comedian, nodded, “Yeah, yeah, that’s right!” She toned down her own jokes today to let her sister take the comedic spotlight – I thought that was so sweet and generous.

Before we knew it, Mo was venting about racism in America. He’s really mad about that, the way people still can’t look past one another’s skin colors in this day and age. Soon he got fired up – in one breath culture led to religion to politics to war.

Bernice calmed him right down with one sentence. “God made us different like flowers – if we were all the same, there would be nothing nice to look at.” What a beautiful image – I had never thought of it that way before. Without disagreeing with anything Mo said, she put a positive spin on our entire cultural discussion. In my mind, entire fields of flowers sprang up. I’m no botanist – the clarity of the image surprised me. It was like something out of the Planet Earth TV series. “It’s important to treat everyone with love and respect,” she added. “Always love, never hate.”

Henrietta was listening, not speaking much, but at the end of class gave me a stack of poems about food and culture, and asked me if I could print some information on the Chinese zodiac and explain it to her next week. She has been learning French and English, and wants to take up Chinese too. And to learn a language well, she likes to take the time to understand the culture first.

Helen said, “There is something I’d like to say.” Already we knew it was going to be graceful and profound. The room went quiet. “My parents never taught us to treat anyone differently because of their race or creed.” She told us that her parents made it clear to her sister and her to keep their feet on the ground and keep their heads up, to feel neither superior nor inferior to other people. And that is something she has tried to instill in her kids as well, and now her kids, all grown, have passed onto the grandkids. It starts at home.

Hearing this, I had to share about the first time my grandma met my husband, who was my new boyfriend at the time. She doesn’t know any English, and he didn’t know any Chinese, except for “hello” and “thank you” which I had strategically taught him in order make a good impression on my family. My grandma opened the door and let us in. At first I started translating, then I realized it wasn’t needed. With nods, smiles, hand gestures, they were conversing. They greeted each other. My grandma gave him a tour of the house and showed him a view of her garden. We ended up at the kitchen counter next to the fruit bowl. For some reason, Jason had never seen a mango before in his life. My grandma could tell because his hazel eyes turned huge. She giggled, then tapped him several times on his arm. That was when I realized she, at a little more than four-foot tall, was one and a half heads shorter than him. I took a mental snapshot, thinking to myself, this is surreal. She had retrieved a paring knife from the top drawer and proceeded to show him how to cut the mango. In thirds, then cubing without slicing through the skin for the two side pieces. The middle piece with the seed is for biting into – this, she gestured by holding it up to her mouth, then looking at Jason. In response, to show her that he understood, he held an air-mango in his hands then opened and closed his lips. Like this, the mango lesson went on in slow motion. She paused after every step, and only after Jason nodded, would she move on. Finally the ceremonial cutting was done and it was time to eat. My grandma handed one of the side pieces, along with a teaspoon, to Jason, and the middle piece to me. I smiled on the inside. The three of us ate right there at the counter. We were standing close together. My elbows touched both of theirs. It was the best-tasting mango I had ever eaten.

Not many people ask outright (because culture after all is a touchy topic), but whenever people ask Jason and me what it’s like to be “an interracial couple”, we just tell them this story.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mo (My First Crushes)

First week of the year feels like this, I almost forgot. After a full month of extraordinary indulgence, I crave ordinary things with a new fervor. (This week my husband and I have invented a little cheer: we look at each other and he tells me, “Carpe diem!” and I go, “Let’s do this!” and we laugh because it’s silly but it works. We’re pumped up for whatever IT is that we’re doing.) There are the obvious activities I fill my week with, but there are also hard-to-pinpoint, un-schedulable pieces of my life that make me feel its rhythm. I crave those too. One of them is the Mo’s ongoing tell-all of his past. I didn’t really realize how much I count on it (I thought it’s his thing, and I am just along for the ride), until suddenly I feel like I miss it, and I can’t wait for more of it.

So, here we are back with Mo on his adolescent adventures, picking up with 7th grade. Part of me wonders how far along he will take this – to his age now? I don’t know, and I kind of don’t want to ask. I want to be surprised. Wherever he’s taking this, I’m liking the ride.

By 7th grade some of our classmates were becoming attractive young ladies. Catholic School did not encourage leisure co-ed activities. Recess was mostly pent playing first ball, a form of baseball with a tennis ball and short bases with all the girls. Dreaming about slims in to the back of the classroom for kissing and kissing was part of every day. Nothing ever materialized.

In the fall I extended my good night prayer from a half minute to about half of an hour saying my Hail Mary to make the football team. When I receive probably the last blue and red sweat shirt, I was probably the happiest 4 ‘9 and 90 pounds kid in the U.S. of A.

When a girl was crying because her dog had died and she was told that pets will not go to heaven, I raised my hand and asked Sister R., if God could do anything, why couldn’t he allow some pets in heaven? We were kept after school until I raised my hand and said I believed that no animal were in heaven. The other boys and I wanted to go to the playground so I lied to the nuns. That was the first step in my journey out the Roman Catholic Church.

By this time I had read almost every book in our school library and was finding all the Sherlock Holmes books in the town library.

Sports kept me busy everyday and the radio next to my bed which was a couch in the little living room of our apartment in the day time kept me busy every night. It never occurred to me to do homework but my grades were excellent because I paid attention in class.