Stories of Our Elders
By Carrie Tippen
American Lit. and Creative Writing
I have to do math to remember my age now. I was born in 1984; it’s 2018 and past May, so that makes me 34. I don’t know exactly when my age stopped sitting there at the top of my memory, like a reflex response, ready to answer the question. I knew when I was 30. I stopped knowing after that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about memory this year. In the Spring 2018 semester, I taught a Creative Writing course at Chatham University with the theme of memory. We read about the science and theory of memory. We read a memoir of sorts by the grandson of the man who popularized the lobotomy in America and created Patient HM, the most studied human subject in history who taught us brand new things about how the brain makes memories. We read poetry about memory, based on remembrance. We wrote about our memories and about characters haunted by memory.
We also spent part of our semester leading storytelling workshops at Heritage Place, a residential nursing facility in Squirrel Hill. Each week, a team of students created a lesson plan designed to get residents to think, talk, and write about their pasts. One week, students asked about birthdays. How did you celebrate birthdays in your family? What are your best memories of a birthday? Another week, the subject was character archetypes. Who did you know in your life who was a trickster? When you tell stories about your life, who are the antagonists? Who are the heroes in your stories? Around Easter and Passover, students asked about favorite holidays and celebrations and feasts. What did you eat? What were your special traditions? We asked about their neighborhoods and the places they lived. What were the secret places only kids knew about? What landmarks are still there? What places are lost?
Each week, we crashed the last five minutes of Saturday bingo and recruited residents to stay and remember with us. There were four women who consistently joined us each week. After a few weeks, we came to know their stories well. And though we never asked anyone what medical conditions kept them in a nursing home, we could see from the stories they told (and sometimes retold, over and over) that their memories were important to their identities, even if they weren’t always complete or easy to access.
Our most devoted resident (I’ll call her Jan) was a former teacher, and she approached each class as a star student. Jan was always the first to answer a question after politely looking to see if anyone else wanted to volunteer first. She seemed to feel compassion for our nervous student leaders, always encouraging them and trying to make them feel comfortable.
We weren’t sure from week to week if Jan really remembered us, though she immediately made an impression on us. She told a handful of stories, sometimes repeating the same story in a session. Sometimes she started telling one story and ended it with another. Other times, she would lose the thread as she told it. “Stop me if I’ve told this one,” she’d say. We never did.
Many of Jan’s stories had to do with a trip she took to Europe in college with her mother, her mother’s sister, and her cousin. If I remember the story right, Jan’s grandparents had emigrated from Italy. This trip to Italy was to meet their Italian relations for the first time. Jan told us that the Italian relations made them hot dogs for dinner to make the Americans feel more at home. The American’s were so disappointed, but the next night, they had a real Italian feast.
On another trip to Mexico, in a restaurant, they wanted butter for their bread, and not knowing the Spanish word for butter, they kept asking their waiter for butter in Italian. “Burro!” They shouted and gestured a knife moving across a loaf, “Per favore, burro!”
My teaching assistant Elia developed a special relationship with Jan. After a session or two, he began to approach her stories like a researcher or a journalist. Jan would begin to tell the hot dog story again, and Elia would interrupt her, disrupt the set up before she could get to the punchline, and ask Jan to remember more. “Who else was there at the hot dog dinner? Where do you think they got hot dog ingredients?”
A well timed question could take the story into new dimensions. Elia got Jan to remember the geography and landmarks of the town in Italy where her family lived. While they talked, I searched for images with my smartphone and showed them to her. I found photos of the walled city, the main cathedral, sights she had seen. Now we heard a new story about her grandmother and her sisters saving their one pair of shoes by walking barefoot from home until they were within the city walls.
I learned a lot about memory and storytelling from watching my students interact with the senior residents, but I think I learned the most about listening. I had been trained most of my life to listen to my elders quietly, respectfully, silently. I took in Jan’s stories as she delivered them, punchlines and all. I nodded and laughed when I was expected to. But Elia cracked those polished stories wide open with his curiosity. He learned the stories behind the stories. He listened like a writer.
The weeks of storytelling made me think of what stories I would tell when my time came. What will be my touchstone, the place I come back to? What version of myself will I always be in my memory? Will I be like Jan, always traveling? Always a young woman in a fascinating place that is both strange and like coming home?
When my stories begin to ring like polished old bells, who will be there to ask me more?
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