Tomorrow (Thursday) I leave for France to visit my in-laws. Patrick's mom is 87 and showing her age, and we have two brand-new babies in the family, so the annual visit is pretty important, but it's always a little hard to leave home. Anyway, we'll be back July 2, but if it feels like I'm absent over the next two weeks, that's why. Meanwhile, here's a rough draft of the introduction to our "collective memoir," which we will publish later this summer. The title seems to have morphed from "Fishbone Alley" to "In Cahoots." What do you think of the intro? Is it done? Or do I need to take time out from vacationing to perfect it? The real question is, does it make you want to read the book?
IN THE FALL OF 2008, MY MOTHER AND I ENROLLED in a six-week memoir-writing class at the senior center in Randolph, Vermont. My mother was then eighty-seven, and I hoped the structure of a class would encourage her to keep working on the memoir she had begun years earlier and then put aside.
Randolph is the town where I was born. I went to the Randolph Elementary School, learned to swim in the Third Branch of the White River, to ski in Mr. Farr’s cow pasture, to skate at the town rink by the bridge. I bought penny candy at Merusi’s store, popcorn at the Playhouse movie theater. I still remember the sternness with which old Mr. Merusi used to view every child who crossed his doorstep, as if we were all bent on mischief, and the way Mrs. MacLaine used to patrol the aisles of the movie theater clacking a metallic noisemaker, the signal for us to simmer down.
In 1972 I graduated from Randolph Union High School and went off to college. From there, I moved to New York City and got a publishing job. Over the next thirty years, I married, moved approximately twenty times, divorced, married again, and raised a stepson. Then I came home to Randolph.
My husband and I settled in at 36 Highland Avenue, my childhood home. I was tired of big-city life and needed a change of pace; my mother needed some help. I began driving her to her appointments around town, becoming a regular in the water-aerobics class at Shape, the book discussion at Kimball Library, the Lift for Life class at the senior center.
The Randolph Senior Center is on a half-forgotten street just south of the railroad tracks; when the neighborhood dogs slip their chains and come looking for kitchen scraps, Rose, the cook, stands on the front porch brandishing her spatula and threatens to call the police. At the senior center, you can get a flu-shot, a pedicure, or a lesson in how to declutter your home. You can play bridge or make a patchwork book bag or take a little nap sitting up. At the senior center, Emilie rings the dinner bell Monday through Thursday at 11:55, and we all say the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance before we form the chow line. There is hand sanitizer on every table and a little envelope for your suggested donation, and Rose and Janet serve the meatloaf and watery vegetables cafeteria-style. The coffee is 50 cents on the honor system—there’s a wooden salad bowl for your change—and it tastes like 50-cent coffee. You can come through the door feeling mean as a snake and you will still get a chair and a squirt of hand sanitizer and a plateful of food.
I started going to the center to lift weights. The Lift for Lifers were some twenty gray-haired ladies who hoisted dumbbells and leg weights from a seated position, their chairs in a circle. They talked as much as they exercised (I had noticed the same tendency in the water-aerobics class), and my mother attempted to keep order by wearing a whistle around her neck and blowing on it whenever the talk threatened to overtake the hoisting to the extent that we might not finish on time. After several months of this routine, it was announced one day at lunch that a memoir-writing workshop would begin soon.
The class convened on a Monday morning at eighty-thirty. My mother and I were the only two students present. I asked the instructor, a young woman who was just finishing up her MFA, if she would like to postpone the class while we recruited a few more students, but she was undaunted by the small turnout. The next week, another student joined us, and then another, and soon we were six. The class ended, the instructor left, and we were on our own.
Because I am a professional writer, the others quickly decided that I would be their leader. It was a humbling assignment. My “students” were all capable writers who had done far more living than I, and I wasn’t sure what I could teach them, but I happily accepted the role. A year later, I invited the seniors to start a second group that would meet on Tuesday afternoons. Every week we gather at a big round table in the craft room and, surrounded by a jumble of Christmas ornaments, scraps of cloth, and other bric-a-brac, read aloud from our memoirs-in-progress. I do not tell the writers what to write about. That is entirely up to them. I just listen, waiting to see what themes will emerge.
It interests me, for instance, that so many of their childhood memories concern grandparents. The influence of grandparents and their integral involvement in family life was a given in an era when assisted living meant moving in with the kids. The older folks helped with the many chores that were typical of rural households before World War II. My mother remembers her grandfather churning butter, tending the vegetable garden, and keeping hens, as well as peddling the eggs door-to-door, on foot, in town. This was when he was well into his eighties. Grandmothers helped with the sewing (most clothes were made by hand), the ironing (a long day’s work), and dozens of other tasks that don’t exist today (does anyone darn socks anymore?). One of the tasks assumed by both grandmothers and grandfathers was, of course, the care of young children, which explains why they figure so largely in these early recollections.
Writing is never an easy task, and old age doesn’t make it easier. Some of the Hale Street writers don’t drive anymore. Some don’t see or hear like they used to. They struggle to make their pens do what they want, to understand what their computer means when it says, “Overwrite?” They wrestle with imperfect memories, and lives that are too long to fit comfortably on the page—where to begin? What to leave out? What to include? And yet there they are, every week, pages in hand. Why do they do it? More than the writing, it’s the sharing, the sense that their lives have meaning and will continue to do so after they’re gone.
Whenever we gather, we laugh a lot. I suspect this is instructive. Despite their hard knocks, the writers themselves are a resilient bunch. There’s little that escapes their sense of humor. Six of them were born in Vermont, five of those in Randolph. The rest moved here from the Hudson Valley, the Midwest, Kentucky, and other parts of New England. At some point, I began to think of our work as the literary equivalent of the locavore movement. Their recollections are idiosyncratic and intensely personal, and that’s what makes them so effective. Together they have created, quite by accident, a vivid portrait of small-town life that spans the twentieth century.