Memoir Writing at Westminster Canterbury

So, why do you do this every year? This question was posed to me by a student at the close of my third summer teaching Memoir Writing at Westminster Canterbury, a life-long care retirement center close to my home. I struggled to answer her question, stumbling over my words. However, as I drove home, I thought it time for me to put the answer to that question into words.

Six or seven years ago I met my friend at a women’s prayer group at my church. Twenty years my senior, she had emigrated from Ireland when she was 21 with a nursing degree in hand. My friend married, having one daughter before the marriage fell apart. This left her a single mother in New York City in the fifties, decades before the women’s movement. Her plight was not easy, but she persevered. Fifty years later, upon her retirement as a corporate nurse for Exxon, she moved to a townhouse near the ocean in Virginia Beach. Her  years in the town house ended upon a broken hip, and my friend needed help with her move to Westminster Canterbury. This was a challenge for her both mentally and physically, and in helping her with this transition, we bonded. But her health deteriorated as she suffered a series of falls and infections, and she passed away at the close of her first year at Westminster Canterbury.

She was estranged from her only daughter, who had also stopped communication with her five grandchildren. She never shared the details of this estrangement, nor did I ever ask. But when she asked me to serve as executor of her estate, I was aware there really was no one else, so of course, I said yes. One of my first duties was to clear out her apartment at Westminster Canterbury, and among her things I came across a journal she had kept with an introduction addressed to her five grandchildren, by name. As I thumbed through it, I saw that she had fallen into a common trap of journals, as page after page told of appointments kept, lunch dates, shopping done, movies seen, meals eaten. Not a word addressing the remarkable woman I had come to know.

As executor of her estate, each time one of her five grandchildren turns 21, I write a check for a considerable amount of money for one so young. I have already done this three times, and each time I walk away from the event telling myself that this is nothing but wrong, wrong, wrong. For all they get is the money, but not a word about the woman.

The woman who struggled as a young immigrant, taken advantage of so badly at first that her close friend who emigrated )(with her went home after the first year. But she did not want to hear her mother say I told you so, so she stayed, alone, and persevered. The woman who would have lost her job at 53 when Exxon moved the corporate office from Manhattan to Washington DC. She loved her life in Manhattan, but the job security with Exxon as well as her retirement forced the move. But not only did she have to move to D.C., but she also had to learn how to drive. At 53, she took driving lessons in Manhattan as well as her driving test. She did not pass the first time, either. The woman who quipped to any one who admired an oil painting of a rocky beach on the ocean “That’s where I come from…Ireland”. The woman whose heart was broken on her last Easter Sunday as other residents’ families poured in with flowers and boxes of chocolates for their parents and grandparents, but she did not even receive one phone call. These are stories, as well as others, that her grandchildren should know for each holds a life lesson unto itself.

So, this is why I teach memoir writing each summer at Westminster Canterbury. I am trying to correct a wrong and ensure that when a senior sits down to write their memoir, they do not get lost in luncheon dates and hair appointments, but write to the essence of who they are. For if this is not written down, no one will ever know about when you persevered when alll was against you, that difficult decision you once had to make, your fond memories of the place where you grew up..or how much you loved your family.

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