As soon as I give them the writing prompt, they ask me to read what they’ve brought from home instead. It’s Tuesday afternoon at the assisted living home, and memoir class has begun.
One old guy doesn’t like my reading list and rants about Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes: “a thoroughly depressing book.” He is very well-spoken and obviously educated though his pointy chin is down near his chest for most of class, exposing his shiny bald head to the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. Some of the students don’t hear well, and suggest I use a microphone. They are sitting close together around two long tables but the room itself is large, the ceiling high. I pick up and turn on the mic. A different old gent shouts: “Get that thing out of your mouth!”
I arrange for a smaller room. The “sewing room” is cozy, the ceiling normal height. Before I get two words out, the old gent admonishes me. “Please speak clearly and distinctly.”
A woman says her husband can’t see due to macular degeneration, so she will do the writing exercises while he sits close and peers over her shoulder. I take him aside and ask if he might use a tape recorder to tell his stories. I say it would make me nervous if someone looked over my shoulder as I wrote. Then I pair him up with the guy who can’t hear as they seem to know each other. As I walk away, they are laughing, heads together.
At feedback time, the men in the class are rough on each other but it’s all a joke. The women are kind and gentle. One of them says I can be their “leader for life.”
During a break, the woman whose husband can’t see tells me she feels uncomfortable writing about the black servants she had as a child in the South, because one woman in the class is Black. There are two, I say, but he second woman is very light-skinned, and the old Southerner can’t believe it. Didn’t she hear the woman read her piece about enslaved ancestors? I tell her I understand but she might want to talk about her feelings with them. She nods and I leave it at that.
They write about what makes them truly happy and come up with an array of themes: being a student, playing sports, the birth of a grandchild, nature, beer, feeling welcome, being comforted, loving family, being alive, and seeing a big city for the first time.
The grouchy old gent asks me how to write “without being verbose.” His pieces are so short, I tell him to try to be verbose and it will probably come out just right. I’m not ready to tell him he needs to add some emotion.
At the end of class, he says “Please come back.”
Linda C. Wisniewski is a former librarian who lives in Bucks County, PA where she volunteers at the historic home of author Pearl S. Buck. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines and newspapers. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 and her debut novel, Where the Stork Flies, was released in May 2021.