VT Edition: Seniors Pen Memoirs

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(Host)  Everyone has a story to tell, especially those who’ve lived long and productive lives. 

Unfortunately not everyone takes the time to tell it.  

But that’s not the case in Randolph where groups of seniors whose ages run from 80 to 99 have been gathering to read from their memoirs, which are all works in progress. 

VPR’s Steve Zind paid them a visit. 

(John Jackson reads)  "Once upon a time, long, long ago, in the spring of 1946, I was a 17-year-old high school senior approaching graduation…(pauses)  Just for laughs, here’s my high school graduation picture."

(Others)  "Wow, you were handsome!"

(Zind)  John Jackson and his fellow memoir writers meet every week at the Randolph Senior Center to read and discuss what they’ve written. The twelve writers are split into two groups At 81, Jackson is the youngest in this bunch.  

Sara Tucker leads the memoir writing sessions, drawing on her experience as an editor and writer to encourage the participants and offer tips.

(Tucker) "One thing I wanted to say; when you’re writing about something, a moment in the past that you’re trying to capture, it helps to bring it to life when you use all of your senses to describe that particular moment." 

(Zind)  Tucker started running these sessions as a way to get her mother to finish her own memoir. She thought it would help if her mother had other people to share her writing with.

(Tucker)  "You get very isolated.  You think, why am I doing this?  Nobody cares.  Maybe I should just pack it in.  And to have a place to come to where you know people do care.  And even if it doesn’t go beyond that group of people, it’s still worthwhile." 

(Zind)  Childhood, leaving home, coming of age, early jobs are all common themes in the writing the seniors are producing.  Charlie Cooley combined them all in one piece he wrote.  

(Charlie Cooley reads seniors2) "In the summer of 1941, I turned 15 years old…. 

(Zind) Cooley spent his childhood on the farm in Randolph Center run by his father Harry, who was Vermont’s Secretary of State in the 1960s. 

Cooley’s piece is about an idyllic childhood interrupted at one point in that summer of 1941 when he volunteered to go to over the mountain to East Warren to lend a hand at the farm of a relative who’d broken his leg.  He didn’t know the relative well and the long trip felt like a journey to a distant wilderness.  

(Cooley) "East Warren had no collection of houses that could be considered a village.  It is somewhat problematic to claim that it needed a name.  This was before Mad River Glen and Sugarbush changed the economy of the Mad River Valley, so there was a magnificent view across the valley of the higher mountains to the west.  At that time the only commercial activity in the valley was farming, lumbering and sugaring." 

(Zind) Cooley’s description is a reminder that for a child distances seemed much greater, especially when they’re measured from home – and how Vermont seemed much larger before there were modern highways. 

And, as you listen, you begin to feel the isolation that a 15 year old boy must have felt, work alone, far from home, single-handedly in charge of running a farm while the owner recuperated.

(Cooley) "There was no electricity, no radio and most of all no one but Mrs. Tucker in the household.  I had to get the cows milked by 6 o’clock every morning so that the milk truck could carry the milk to market in Waterbury

(Zind) Not all the memoirs are about growing up in Vermont.  D’Ann Calhoun-Fago grew up in Kentucky. 

In Calhoun-Fago’s writing, which Sara Tucker has edited and reads to the group, she describes a time in the south when segregation was an unquestioned norm.  

Her family lived in a large house on a large piece of land.  But as a little girl she felt drawn to those who had less, who lived in the houses crowded together beyond the fence.  

(Sara Tucker reads D’Ann’s essay) "All these little houses and lots of people.  I used to stand in our backyard and listen at sunset, particularly, to the people on the other side of the fence.  Our house was very quiet and they sounded like they were having such a wonderful time.  Every night things would come alive.  You’d hear a voice coming up above the other voices.  Someone coming through with a wagon hawking tamales.  I couldn’t always understand what they were selling, it was too far away to really hear.  But it was like, what a joyous place to be." 

(Zind) Sara Tucker says these senior citizens face challenges younger memoirists don’t. 

Tucker says the choosing what to write about from a life that spans the better part of a century can be daunting.  And for some like Calhoun-Fago, who’s 92 and doesn’t use a computer, even the physical act of holding a pen and writing can be difficult and painful. 

Calhoun-Fago’s notebook is filled with wavy writing that alternates between printing and cursive. 

She reads an entry dated Saturday, March 27. It’s not about the past, it’s about the present.

(Calhoun-Fago reads) "Good night’s sleep. Got up feeling frisky.  Got quite a bit done.  Kitchen work. Dishes mostly.  Also the newspaper.  Tried to fine ‘acerbic’ in three dictionaries but got kind of mixed up in the process. Had a hard time getting it out of my head that there wasn’t an ‘s’ in there somewhere.  What to do now that there’s a little time to do something before fatigue sets in.  Is that simply a necessary part of getting old:  Great spurts of energy but then falling back into old fatigue?" 

(Zind)  The memoir writers bring something new to each week’s session.  It takes some self discipline and maybe even a bit of courage to keep writing – and to read aloud to a roomful of people.  For John Jackson and Charlie Cooley there are good reasons to do it.

(Jackson) "A lot of us, considering our ages and positions and everything; we’re doing this more for our children and grandchildren than for anybody else.  We’re all aware of the fact that things happened to our parents and grandparents that we never found about, never knew about – and they’re gone forever. 

(Cooley) It just seems as though maybe its time for me to commit it to print, so if anybody gets curious about it, they can look it up." 

(Zind)  If the seniors in this group have more modest and personal reasons for writing, their leader, Sara Tucker, has grander plans.

Tucker is editing their writing to include in a future anthology.  And she’s working with the Vermont Folklife Center on an exhibit feature photographs and the voices of Randolph’s senior citizen writers.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

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