Writing is a gift, and when I lead writing classes, I feel like I’m giving a gift to someone in helping them tell their story.
Last week, I led a writing class at Mont Marie, a nursing home in Holyoke, Mass. My colleague Judy Kelliher came with me, both because her mother, Bette, the sweetest woman ever, was in the class and also because she was volunteering to be a scribe and write for any class members who couldn’t write for themselves.
I’d never led a class in a nursing home setting, and I admit I was a little nervous about what to expect. I wasn’t sure anyone would show up, for starters.
When Judy and I arrived in the community room for the class, I was thrilled to see 10 residents of Mont Marie gathered around tables, each of them with a scribe ready to start taking dictation. There was animated chatter, and heads turned toward us.
“Are you the teacher?” one woman asked me. Her smile was huge. She held a pencil and a yellow sheet of paper in her hand. “I’m going to write about my family. I had 16 brothers and sisters. I sang them to sleep every night before I went to bed myself.”
This woman’s name was Stella, and, like the others, she couldn’t wait to get started.
For those who had come not knowing what to write about, I gave them a prompt to get them thinking.
I told them about the time my neighbor Bobby and I picked purple lilacs in my yard and sold them to my next door neighbor, Helen Moody, only to find that the lilacs were actually on her property. And then, I asked these women to tell me a silly story.
For 30 minutes, there was quiet talk, as the women around the room dictated their stories to their scribes. The energy was palpable.
I was Stella’s scribe, and I jotted down a three-page story for her about her enormous family and how they had to stand in line for their dinner and for a bath. Stella wrote that college students in her community brought her family a Christmas tree one year after hearing about the large Italian family who had never had a tree. The students, she said, also brought each of the 17 children a present, as well as a dollar bill for mother and father.
When the writing was over, with equal anticipation, each resident listened intently as the scribes read the women’s stories, one by one. There was applause after each telling.
Stories centered around the innocence of children then. One woman wrote, for instance, that her father sold his gold watch to buy the children a bicycle.
“There was one bike and 10 of us,” she wrote, “but we never fought over it.”
When the class was over, residents said things like, “That was so much fun,” and “That was so different.” No one moved to leave the room. Judy and I had a chance to talk with each of them individually, and then we spent some time with Bette.
As I left Mont Marie, I thought to myself, “I didn’t give those women a gift today. They gave one to me.”