Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Henrietta (Thank You to the WWW)

All of you reading this blog, right here, right now – yes, you, whether you are seeing these little words via the website, or streaming the blog through Facebook or Twitter, whether you are on your iphone, Blackberry, desktop computer or laptop, at home or at a coffee shop, in Philadelphia or any other American city, or anywhere in the world – yes, I mean all of you, the whole world wide web of you – here is a thank-you letter from Henrietta to YOU. You may be thinking you are just here to check out some cool stories, but clearly, you’ve been doing a whole lot more than that. You to our seniors are one united comforting, listening community. Doesn't matter that they don't see you. They really do feel your presence and support. Keep it up, Team WWW!

I must say thank you to the
www, for being a way that I can
Use to heal myself, a way that I
Can meditate, a place I can turn to,
A way to be human.
I say thank you www because I
Can go back to each frozen
Place-in-my-past, and with
God’s help, unfreeze each trauma
Each trauma that I could not
Deal with in the moment, because
I was busy surviving – I was too busy
Keeping a job in a world that said “No”.
The World Wide Web said, “Yes to all,” and “If you
Have it, bring it”. For that I
Thank the www. You who level all
Playing fields. With you the fear factor
Is gone. Thank you www for access to
Information. Are you reading me?
Then blog me back. Now healing starts

Monday, March 29, 2010

An Unforgettable Email

Want to dedicate this blog post to one of the most beautiful letters that I've ever received. To give you some context, in class on Thursday, my senior buddy Mo told me that his eldest daughter had just unveiled to his three other daughters (physically, on the same computer) his mounting stories on the blog. Well, can you imagine my surprise when I saw an email from one of them in my inbox? Kathleen and I have been exchanging more emails since, and she gave me permission to share her letter here on the blog.

(Thanks again, Kathleen, for reaching out to me. It really does mean everything.)

From: Kathleen
To: Benita
Subject: Mo McCooper
Date: Saturday, March 27, 2010 10:29 PM

Dear Benita,

I am "Mo McCooper's" fourth daughter!

I can't tell you how delighted, surprised, amazed and proud I was when my sister Coleen logged us onto The Best Day of My Life So Far Blog.

When I first saw my Dad in the picture, I almost couldn't believe it. My Dad, on the computer screen - something didn't make sense. And then, when she began to explain what it was all about, my jaw dropped. And then, when we started reading his stories, my eyes filled with tears. His childhood unfolding before me, bit by bit, word by word.

As you can imagine, growing up with a Dad with a spirit as lively and colorful as "Mo's" was quite an adventure. I love my Dad so much, and living so far away from him, I always feel an empty place in my heart, knowing that we miss so much of each other's lives. My boys adore him, but one or two visits a year isn't near enough time to be with your Grandpop or your Dad. When I read his stories, I feel closer to him. And when I read your "intros," I get to feel like a "fly on the wall" and hear what mischief "Mo" is up to that day!

I want to thank you from deep in my core, for making this happen for my Dad and all of the amazing writers in the group. What a gift you have given to them and to all of us.

I am now a "follower" or a "fan" or a "groupie" - whatever you want to call me. I will be checking in everyday to catch a glimpse into "Partytime."

All my best,

How did I feel when I clicked open this email? To say I was moved is putting it lightly. I knew, even before getting to the end, that I would remember this letter forever. I read it over and over again. I asked my husband to read it too. “This is amazing,” he said, with my Blackberry still in his hand, “I mean, everything she said is everything you’ve been trying to do.” I nodded, in shock. When first planning this class, I had thought, wouldn't it be great if an out-of-town grandchild/child, via the class blog, gets to know his or her grandparent/parent a little more? And maybe the stories can serve as a fun icebreaker in order for the two to start some long overdue conversation? A dreamer at heart, I had excitedly thought that to myself, but I didn't know if I could actually make it happen. Well... when I saw this email, I just felt like reality has in fact replaced what just months ago had only been a dream.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Michael (A Simple Life)

Michael, who’s been coming to class with his buddy Mo, moved from Hong Kong only several years ago, where I also happened to have grown up. After reading out loud, he said to the whole group, “This class makes the world feels a little smaller.” Now, that’s a big statement.

And he’s right … to think that these seniors have journeyed through decades of wildly different experiences and ended up sharing the same table… I mean, the thought makes my fingers tingle a little, even as I am typing this blog post.

Michael Chan/ Chan-Man-Tin
March 18, 2010
A Simple Life

I was born in Kin Yang, 300 miles from Shanghai on January 2, 1928.  When my age reached 18 years old, I went to Shanghai and stayed there for five years.  Then, I left Shanghai by the end of 1949 and arrived in Hong Kong by train on July 8, 1950. 

I found that English was very important.  Then, I started to learn English in evening school for five years.  Afterwards, I built my own business, a garment business, during the years 1950 to 1970.  Most of the garments, ladies fashion, were exported to the United States, England, and Germany until the twentieth century.

I changed my business to trading and became a member of the Stock Exchange in Hong Kong.  I came to the United States in the year 2006 and retired.  I enjoy a simple life with my daughter, here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mo (The Twins)

I count the seniors in our class as some of my closest friends – that, I think you know by now. But there’s this whole other layer of friendships that has been growing in our classroom – among the seniors themselves. In the previous blog post, you saw what Hazel wrote. And now, here’s Mo thanking “our” twins Beatrice and Bernice for reaching out to him. I just thought it was so nice of Mo to write this. Since joining the class months ago, he has become one of our most fervent and regular attendees, and has invited a number of his friends to join us as well. The cycle of friendship goes on and on. It’s just the world’s sweetest thing to witness.

Mo McCooper
March 18, 2010
The Twins

Almost two years ago, I joined the Philadelphia Senior Center on Broad Street, south of Lombard to enjoy the daily hot lunches at a generous discount.  Each day, I would search for an empty table to set my tray on so I could focus on eating!

The various members are fun to kid with.  A set of twins can break my stones any day but as they are lovely ladies, they take it easy on me.  One day after I had lunched, Beatrice took my arm and said, “You are a veteran and you’re coming with me upstairs to the auditorium.”

Volunteers introduced some veterans of World War II – each of whom spoke a few words.  It’s been very rare in my life that I have “choked up” or suppressed tears.  When my father died unexpectedly when I was 17 years old, I was so angry at God that I didn’t cry at the hospital or services.  However, I had good emotions while listening to the veterans and thinking of my uncles Tom and John and friends who had served in World War II.

Following some wonderful entertainment and a few more thoughts from veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, we had coffee and treats on the stage and I met a tall strong well ribboned Marine who happened to be one of the sons of Beatrice on leave from Afghanistan and/or Iraq.

Months later, when Bernice took my arm after lunch and told me I was going to be a visitor at the “Writing Class”, I could not resist the charm and power of the lovely twins of Broad and Lombard Streets.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hazel (Tomatoes and Writing)

It was Hazel’s first time in class, and she was such a good sport. Hazel had the tomato story written before class, so while the other seniors were writing at the table, I showed Hazel our class’ blog and Facebook page. Of course, the other seniors were goofing off behind us (yup, as they were writing) and, at some point, facing the computer screen, Hazel just bursted out laughing.

After we got off the computer, Hazel wrote another piece – just a couple sentences long, but it’s enough to show us that she was really having fun, and that made me so happy.

Hazel Nurse
March 18th, 2010
No Tomatoes

After seating my two and a half year old great-grand-daughter to the dinner table, Ayo exclaimed, “Granny, I can’t eat tomatoes.”

I retorted, “Why?”

She responded, “I’m allergic to tomatoes.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

She answered, “When mommy gave me tomatoes, they made little red bumps on my tummy.”

Hazel Nurse
March 18th, 2010

Writing for fun is high on my list of priorities! To join a group of writers so young in spirit, relaxed, uninhibited, makes this experience priceless.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bernice (Yesterday's People)

Well, if we go by the weather here in Philly, it's officially, gorgeously spring! I'm loving this sunshine! This little piece by Bernice hits the spot. Seeing everyone out in the parks and on the sidewalks, I keep thinking about what Bernice wrote and read out loud in class last week, "You cannot live in this world alone, so many things to do and see."

Bernice Moore
Yesterday’s People

I am always drawing pictures, even when I was in school. A lot of the time I drew difficult things like houses, trees, cars, boats and many other things.

It is fun when you know how to draw different things. You can see so many things if you keep your mind on what is really happening. You cannot live in this world alone, so many things to do and see.

Everything has changed since the war years; we still have wars in different places. Some people still can’t get along. Glad more people are like flowers; different colors and different breeds, and different worlds.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Beatrice (Going to the Casino; Born in the 30s)

This, as you can imagine, caused quite some excitement in class – Beatrice told us that she had won BIG at the casino on the senior center’s field trip the week before:

Beatrice Newkirk
March 18, 2010
Going to the Casino

I took a trip to the casino and got on the penny machine.  I did not play right away.  It was a nice day.  There were 35 people on the bus.  We had a lot of fun.  We went in the van that belongs to the center.  We left at 10 o’clock and returned at 4:30.  Everyone got to the van on time. 

I won 85 dollars on the penny machine.  I did not put it back.  I felt so good being a winner.

BTW don’t you just love the way she said, “I did not put it back”? What a punchline, right? What will power! She had us all doubled over the table, laughing. She won 85 dollars on the penny machine... but, hey, she made sure we knew, she did not put it back!

Oh, and I want to show you something else she wrote, same class, same day. About something altogether different, about being born in the 30s, but it’s the same cheeky, surprising humor – the fact that she did this as a list is so funny, I think, not to mention the way the list ends. And her kind of humor is so unique… the way she can simultaneously make us laugh and teach us deep lessons.

Beatrice Newkirk
March 18, 2010
Born in the 30’s

I am glad I was born in the 30’s, there are so many things to remember:

1.    Things were hard to get in the early years
2.    Time went slowly
3.    The week seemed like months
4.    Monday to Friday did not go fast
5.    The end of the month took a long time
6.    The end of the year took a long time
7.    But one thing, in the olden days, people cared about one another; people checked on everyone.
8.    Treated people with respect

Thursday, March 18, 2010

1 Hour X 1 Table =

How much conversation can come out of one hour, around one table? Today, it was about this much:

Hazel wrote + talked about her granddaughter’s tomato allergies; the gap in her front teeth and her endless pursuit to hide the gap; and her feelings about the class – she called the experience “priceless”;

Beatrice wrote + talked about her big win of $85 last week at the penny machine, on the senior center’s field trip to the casino; and about being glad to have been born in the 30’s, when everyone had a natural respect for one another;

Bernice wrote + talked about “yesterday's people” (“Weird title, right?” she asked me, giggling and nudging my elbow – I love that Bernice is such a little rascal) and why she likes to draw pictures;

Michael wrote + talked about WWII in Hong Kong, and his hefty careers first in the garment industry then financial industry, and his peaceful life now, having moved to the U.S. just four years ago;

Helen wrote + talked about her recent trip to see her great granddaughter (“My sons have reared their children to really love my daughter and me, and the children have grown up and passed that onto their children. It just warms my heart so much!”)

Henrietta wrote + talked about her feelings about tax reforms and politicians, with deadpan seriousness, laced with unexpected jokes (Henrietta is starting to joke with us, so cool!)

Mo wrote + talked about how “our” twins, Bernice and Beatrice, first convinced him to join our class – it was such a gracious, grateful dedication to them;

Hattie wrote + talked about how sad she was to send her children off to school, (and this is our all-smiles-all-the-time Hattie);

Cholo wrote + talked about his last job as a trucker and how he has lived his entire life as a Jack of all trades, and how he grew up in Puerto Rico (he and I traded some Spanish – his, perfectly fluent; mine – entirely broken);

Greta, a good friend of Hattie’s, came to our class to hang out and just listen.

And me? I was just mainly thinking, wow, wow, wow, this is where it’s at, this is where life’s at. Being at the table today felt straight-up awesome. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rosalind, Nathalie and Didi

This post is triply special because I get to introduce three special people at once. Nathalie came to class last week accompanying Rosalind. (But in a way she was my company too! First time I’ve had a “peer” in our seniors writing class, and I liked it!) Well, Nathalie and Rosalind both wrote a little something, which the other seniors applauded heartily (you should see how great they are at welcoming new classmates now – handing out fliers of the class, describing the “feel” of the class, telling newcomers to just relax and have fun, things that I once said to them when they first joined - I am so proud of them.) As for Didi, I only met her through Nathalie’s words but already like her. She’s Nathalie’s grandmother. I love the way Nathalie talks about her.

Nathalie Davidson

Didi is my grandmother and she lives in a senior home in New York. I don’t get to see her very often because she is three hours away. But when I do see her, we listen to music, sing songs from her childhood, and go to a cafĂ© down the road.

I love listening to Didi tell stories because she has had such an amazing life. She is French and grew up in Paris. I walked down her street last year when I lived there and it is beautiful. There is a fountain and a statue, and the apartment building is made of stone. I imagined Didi at 6, playing in the fountain with her friend Jacqueline.

But, what truly comes to mind when I think of my grandmother growing up in France aren’t the play dates and fun, but being there when the Nazis occupied Paris. She grew up in Paris during World War II. That is fascinating to me. Her father was part of the Resistance. One day the Nazis actually came to their home, looking for her father. They quickly dressed him up in his pajamas and put him to bed. My grandmother had to explain to the Nazis that her father was too sick with the flu to interrogate. They looked him over and then left. I can’t imagine the bravery. They had to be part of the Resistance and then actually lie to the Nazis. Didi describes the fear she had, the hardships they faced. When Paris was occupied by the Nazis, they couldn’t leave their home safely; they couldn’t buy sugar and milk.

Another story I love of hers is of her dog, Fritz. When the Nazis couldn’t interrogate her father, they took their dog instead. As they drove him away in the back of their pick-up truck, Fritz paid close attention to where he was going. Didi says he counted each church steeple all the way to Germany. When the timing was just right, he jumped off the truck and escaped. He found his way back this way. Didi loves this story.

Rosalind Smith           

This is my first day at the Senior Center.  I would have liked to hear interesting tales from my colleagues around me but I have been asked to write about me.  I am a fairly newcomer here in Philadelphia – and find it quite different from New York from where I came.  It’s fairly quiet here and the buildings are old fashioned and fun to compare with each other.  Having come from New York, to begin with, it seems very quiet, but as you go from area to area - you find many differences.  This is my first day.  I must do a little investigating before I can compare the pages and see the differences.  I’m having fun – I look through the buildings and the many different areas that have been written about.  These areas did not have air-conditioning, so the summers there were hot, but it was fun comparing the different areas.  And, I made many friends in the various areas. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mo (Embarrassment)

Well, the title says it all... "Joke's on me!" Mo said before reading out loud; by the time he was done reading, his face had turned the same color as Helen's scarlet hat.


Williams Avenue is a one block street, connecting two well traveled streets through a small town. It is a steep hill with little double houses on both sides. When I was about five years old and staying there with my cousins, Joey, Patsy, and Johnny, while my mother was in the hospital, I got to know the kids. It seemed like hundreds who lived or played on the hill.

While having a great time playing “kick the can” I realized I should soon go into Aunt Helen’s house to use the toilet. Continuing to “kick the can” was a big mistake. A terrible odor was invading the other kids. I rushed up the front steps, through the door of the living room, up the steps into the bathroom on the second floor.

The next thing I remember was teasing my little cousin Johnny at breakfast the next morning because his jockey shorts were hanging in a corner of the kitchen after a wash. He had wet his pants the night before.

Aunt Helen looked up from the frying pan and said, “You can’t make fun of Johnny if you’d like me to hang your pants in the backyard for a few days.” Joey, Patsy, and Johnny only laughed a little while as they saw how unbelievably embarrassed I was. Years later when my Dad told me, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. I completely understood.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Joann (Sleeping is Very Important)

Who says rainy days have to be dreary days? For those of you who aren't in Philadelphia, yep, around here it's looking like a rainy weekend! So, to cheer up my fellow citizens, let’s do a few silly stories. We’re gonna start out easy with this one here… and coming up tomorrow, I’ve got something that is laugh-out-loud…you’ll see…

Joann Fleming
March 4, 2010
Sleeping is Very Important

One night we were all asleep.  I happened to wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning.  My husband woke up then our cat woke up.  It was amusing to me; my husband turned on the TV.  It was amusing to me because all they thought about was the TV.  Then we all went back to sleep.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thank YOU, Facebook + Twitter Fans!

Just realized I've never taken the time to say THANK YOU to our Facebook or Twitter Fans. The seniors know that they have a digital following, and are absolutely loving it! You should see their faces when they see yours (in those tiny little profile pictures). You've given them so much confidence and self-worth. I just want you to know that.

(If you've been reading regularly, consider being a fan; if you're a fan, thank you for being awesome!!!, and consider inviting your friends on board. The more the merrier!)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Beatrice (The Letter I Never Mailed)

Last week, Beatrice wrote a breezy story about fashion and a weighty story about her son, but she only read one of them out loud: the "fashion" one. At the end of class, when Beatrice added her work to my stack of papers, for me to post here online, I didn’t notice there were two pages.

I only noticed when I was home later, scanning the papers one by one for my volunteers to type up. I stopped scanning to reread the second story over and over again. Its short length carries the weight of the world.

I was struck by Bernice’s choice to write this quiet tribute to her son and post it for the enormous world to see, yet refrain from reading it in our tight-knit class. I don’t know what it means, but I know two things: she is such a good mother, and she will always be a good mother.

Beatrice Newkirk
March 4, 2010
Fashion Today       

Looking at fashions today brings back fashions of yesterday.  I look at the old movies and they go way back.  I look at the clothes and how they are made - the shoes, the dresses and most of all the hats.  When I look in the store’s windows, I see things of yesterday.  When I see them, they remind me of yesterday.  Even the hair and make-up, like times from yesterday.

Beatrice Newkirk
March 4, 2010
A Letter to My Son

A letter to my son, who was in the services (army) 1970 to 1989 – so many letters he did not receive. He came out with lots of awards. I never took the time to show him how proud I was of him. Now he’s in his fifties, with children and grandkids. I wrote the letter and never mailed it. I have the letter at home. At the right time I will give it to him. I want him to know how I feel. I want him to talk to his kids about the letter.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Henrietta (The Letter I Never Wrote)

I put our story idea list to the test this week in class. The question that popped into my head was the "letter" one: "the letter you always wanted to write, but were afraid to send".

Below is Henrietta's response. There's been a lot of things that have moved me in this class, but this is probably at the top. I was so moved I don't even remember if I said anything comprehensible. I had to excuse myself to go get Kleenex right after she finished reading out loud.
 Henrietta Faust
The Letter I Never Wrote

This is the letter I never wrote and I wish I had; it is a letter of “Thanks” to my writing class, especially our teacher, Mrs. Benita Cooper.

If only she had known that the birthday party she gave for me was the first birthday party anyone ever gave me. Next year I am 65 years old. You read it right, not 6 years, not 5 years. I am 64 years old and it is a long story. I will share my long story later, but this is a thank you letter to all the above.

Words can’t express my gratitude so I will just say, “Thank you one and all. I appreciate all of you at PSC.”
Check out the blog archive (click on February) to read more about Henrietta's Surprise Party; check out our Facebook page to see photos from the special day.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

But… What to Ask?!

I left you at a tricky spot yesterday, I know. You read the blog post yesterday, and you think, ok… she said to just “ask” but… what to ask?! Well, my trusty team of volunteers came up with a few suggestions for you to get started. My props to Curtis (whom you “met” via his story about Jennie in January!) for opening up the discussion to the team via email this week.

Email us at to let us know how your conversations with your grandparents/ senior buddies go!

"your first job"
"the happiest day of your life"
“the scariest moment of your life”
“what the old days were like”
"the letter you always wanted to write, but were afraid to send"
"the letter to whom you're most thankful in your life"
"the best thing you've learned in your life"
"what you most want your grandchildren to know"
"the best thing anyone has ever done for you"
"the worst thing anyone has ever done TO you"
"the letter you'd like to write to all the world leaders"
"the most beautiful sight you've ever seen"
"the one motto you've always tried to live by"
"the time you turned lemons in your life into lemonade"
“what are your memories of where you grew up?”
“where did you live?”
“what was the landscape like then?”
“how did you and your wife/husband meet?”
“how did your wife/husband propose?”
"the main thing which made your marriage successful"
"the one thing you’re most proud of in your life”
"the one thing you regret you never said and the person to whom you should have said it”
"what's your favorite holiday and why"
"the biggest change you've seen in your lifetime”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Shortest Tipsheet in the World

So here you are, reading the seniors' stories on our blog, and you may be wondering how to start talking with your own grandparent. Or maybe your grandparents are out of town or have passed (I only have one living grandparent - my maternal grandma - who is the very inspiration of this entire project... check out our blog sidebar to find out more about that) but you've always wanted to reach out to a senior whom you see regularly, whether it's just on the bus or at the grocery store.

Blogreaders often email to ask me how to talk to seniors, and I just feel so inadequate to give any real advice. I am just an architect. I started this whole thing for personal reasons. I have no degree in social work. But what I do have is instinct, energy and an unshakable belief that every day we are given 24 hours to either create more happiness or more stress for our world, to either make another friend or ignore another lonely person.

I can tell you when I first started this project, I was going to run our class at the senior center super-systematically - oh yes, I had a minute-by-minute schedule. But then the seniors and I started laughing, then crying, then laughing some more together, in a way that no class structure can predict or confine. Now I let class be. I show up every week, not knowing what to expect and ready to be surprised. The only thing I need? Sure, pen and paper are wonderful, but those are secondary tools. The only real tool I need is the easiest, handiest tool of all - the human voice. The only item on my tipsheet to you?

1. ASK

I only started calling my grandma to talk four years ago. At the end of our first phone call, she told me:
No one knows any of this. No one knows because no one asks.