Clues, Advice and Thanks

This year as I celebrate 20 years of teaching Write Your Life as a Woman, I’m sharing some older articles and columns inspired by the class. “Clues, Advice and Thanks” originally appeared in skirt magazine in 1997, the first year I led a memoir writing class, which led me to create Write Your Life as a Woman. 

Clues, Advice and Thanks
by T. Dean Adams

“So,” Betty looks around the cafeteria to confirm no one is listening, “How do you like working with the old people?” I nod and smile politely. It is my first day, and I am thankful my mouth is full of food and I cannot answer. “It’s a wonderful time of life,” she continues, “except for the overwhelming sense of finality.” She will not drop her direct gaze into my eyes and I am speechless. Finally, I say, “Tell me what it feels like.” And she did, and then she wrote about it, too.

Betty was one of my first students in a class I led called “Collecting Your Memories” for three weeks at an Elderhostel program in Charleston, South Carolina. Each week a different group of students came in from all over the country, and the ages ranged from the late 50’s to mid-80’s. The purpose of the class was to write about life stories and memories. The focus as not so much on “the price of bread in 1948” as it was on taking a reflective look at their lives. When I was asked to lead the class I hesitated because I had never taught in a formal setting. But I was stumbling into my 30’s praying for clues of what to do with my life, while I was doing the same things I’d been doing for years. When you pray for clues, you don’t second-guess them.

Though my students were from all over the country, their stories were often similar. In each class people wrote of how surprisingly different their children were. The fathers wrote of the births of their children and mentioned that “back then” they were not allowed in the delivery rooms and how they wished they had been. The men described homes in terms of numbers, measurements, and sizes of a room; the women described homes in terms of the children’s ages when they lived there. A woman wrote of her mother’s memory of Armistice Day in New York City when Caruso stepped out onto a balcony and sang the Star Spangled Banner and the crowds on the street blow stopped to listen.

Jack and Norma, from New York City, cannot understand why their friends are retiring to Florida. Jack told me relatively clean “dirty” jokes all week, all prefaced with, “if I stop suddenly it’s because Norma is walking in the room and she would kill me if she knew I talked like this.” And Norma wrote “The three great disappointments of my life are that, one, I was deprived of piano lessons as a child. Two, that I can no longer eat green peppers…” And three, I cannot remember. It haunts me. Makes me wish I’d written down every word they said. I try to remember the third thing, but instead I hear Norma’s strong New York accent as she read about getting her daughter out of jail for protesting the Vietnam War… how much she loves her daughter, how scared she was for her safety. Jack listens, nodding solemnly, as she reads.

In their stories and conversations, my students taught me about aging. How surprised they are to be old enough to retire. How shocking it is for the body to start to fail you, sometimes slowly, other times abruptly. They told me that everyone condescends to them, talking loudly and slowly, making jokes about their memory being bad. Everyone is sweet to them, but stereotypes them as slow, sickly and tired, and how insulting that feels.

They gave me lots of advice and doted on me. Somehow they knew I needed it. They gave me pats on the back and hugs. And advice like, “Pull your hair back you’re hiding your pretty face.” “Never date a boy who doesn’t love his mother.” “You’re saving, aren’t you?” “Did you have breakfast?”

I miss my students and wish I had the space to write about each of them. One of them, Bob, refused to write. During the first assignment he alternately stared at the floor and the ceiling. Before the next assignment I reminded the class they were writing for themselves first, and they could always pass when it was their turn to read.

Still Bob did not write. I spoke to him gently. “Just start with ‘I remember’ and see where it takes you.” He smiled politely and folded his arms. “This is writing practice, the only rule is to keep your pen moving for the entire ten minutes no matter what you write. You can write ‘I hate this,’ but you have to write. That’s all I’m asking of you.” He shifted in his chair and stared at the floor again.

When you are 30-years-old and have never taught before and an 84-year-old student refuses to write, you try everything – every writing mantra, every trick you know, even a little guilt – and when nothing works you ignore him and pray. Dear God/Goddess/whoever, please let this man write. I know he has stories to tell. I know he was a chemist and a father and a husband and apparently his wife is forcing him to come to this class.

On the third day, Bob started writing and on the fourth day, he even read out loud. On the last day, he shook my hand and then held it between both of his and said, “Thank you. I didn’t know I could write.” He held up his notebook as he said, “My kids have never heard some of these stories.”

And I felt the space around us, the light in the room, the sound of his words in my ears and the sparks in my brain making sense of the sounds. It was so big, such a big, big moment that words can’t hold it down, even now, months later as I write them. It felt like there was an exact reason to be alive in this body on this planet for this lifetime.

And I gave thanks.

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