Poetry anthology, 100 pages, $12 cover price
The important thing to know as you begin this book is this: most of the writings are freewrites. They’re presented here just as they came from the pen, have not been edited. They were produced in sessions that are “the mostest fun” on Monday mornings by a group of seniors at the Levine Jewish Community Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The beauty of the spontaneous responses to a prompt is exactly that: the spontaneity. I give a starting point. I time the writing. We spill our words onto the page. We surprise ourselves as we write. An example of the freewrite thinking process can be seen in Bea Kleinman’s entry about Beans in Section 2.
We freewrite for15 minutes, writing quickly, putting on the page whatever comes to mind in response to a starting point. These are short writings. Other writings in this volume were done as homework, so the writers did perhaps linger and tinker with wording.
Our writing sessions are a part of the Oasis Senior Enrichment Program at the Levine Jewish Community Center. Oasis programming began in 1999 and it’s been my privilege since the beginning to lead the writing groups. I still recall entering the building on the day of the very first class (in the old section, before the beautiful new portion was built) and realizing how good the place felt. It still feels wonderful—a place where people of all heritages and faiths are welcome. Our own little group represents quite a few backgrounds and outlooks.
What a bounty of stories I’ve heard through these eight years. Even new members quickly become comfortable and share personal anecdotes. I often hear, “Never before have I been in a group where I felt so free to be myself.”
Every week we rejoice together. Often one of the writers pens words of gratitude for our time together. I’m including below one of these writings, by Evelyn Raflo. She and Bea Kleinman are veteran members of the group, with me since day one. Also, because of our great love for an Oasis employee who died of cancer, I’ve included a tribute by Alice Burt (find it on the final page).
The Monday Mornings we love are divided into two sessions, each an hour long. In the first, the writers read the homework they did to a suggested assignment. In the second we write together at our big table. Since I also write in the second hour, in Section 2 I’ve included a few of my responses to the prompt.
Since we all write to the same starting point, a big part of the pleasure comes from hearing the different directions in which we take the prompt. The second portion of the book, “Sample Rounds,” provides examples of what transpires when we all write to the same opening.
Past and present participants have always agreed on one point: Nowhere in Charlotte does any group begin the week more joyfully. We laugh, we’ve been known to shed a few tears, and many are the times when we break into song.
On a recent Monday morning the homework word was “honey.” As she so often has, Ida Marie Berman (one of our resident comedians) began a song, and many of the others joined in. An oldie—a song whose words I’d heard but didn’t know. They said they thought Eddie Cantor recorded it. Then we got to the second hour, ready to write. Before I gave the assignment I knew Ida Marie wouldn’t like it: “duration.” It’s an inside joke that this one student often complains about the assignment: “Teacher, I don’t like this word.”
When our fifteen minutes of writing time were up, I nodded to Alice Burt, at my left, and she began our readings. Around the table we progressed: Bea K., Evelyn, Golda, Catherine, Hattie, Jim, Mike, Sally, Fanya, Hope, Bea J., Jo, Lou, Ed, Diana, Walter, Al, Leslee, Mollie, Lynn, Nataliya, and on to the final reader, sitting at my right. Ida Marie.
I am a youngster in the group, at 62. A few are recent retirees, while most are closer to 90 years of life. Ida is one of the eldest, and still as much a joy to be around as ever. She had written about how hungry she was, to follow up her brilliant opening line: “I am due rations.”
And so we laughed, again, as we will next Monday.
Barbara Kidd Lawing
Grandma’s Secret Garden
Egmont (Ed) Atkins
Bombs were raining down on London. British antiaircraft were directed toward German fighters and bombers flying from occupied France. The Royal Air Force rose to the skies to engage the invaders. As a youngster in the 1940s, I learned of this ominous scenario from newspapers and radio. While the Europeans experienced these horrors, we Americans were separated from the conflagration by the 3,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean.
My siblings and friends and I were aware of the nationwide drive to support the war effort. There was rationing of food, gas, and varied commodities. Areas were set aside for collecting scrap metal and old tires, and people throughout the country tended “Victory Gardens.”
We children played in a secret garden located in my Grandma Schifra’s back yard. Grandma owned the building. On the ground level she had a dress shop: Tobias Apparel, at 534 Court Street, Brooklyn, in the Red Hook district. There were two apartments over the shop; my family lived in the first, and another family above us.
Grandma’s garden was so dense with untrimmed foliage that it was a good place for playing Hide and Seek, and for hiding from any menacing experiences that might unfold on the busy thoroughfares. It seemed a primeval forest, and was surrounded on three sides by a rough-hewn wooden fence that served as our encompassing fortress and led to Grandma’s ‘castle.’ A fractured stone pathway extended the length of the yard. It began at a flight of rickety stairs with a small landing that also served as a rooftop under which an old door provided entrance to the building’s cellar.
We children initiated many creative means of play. We collected glass jars, filled them with dirt, then inserted a colony of ants and watched them dig tunnels. In the very middle of the garden was a concrete stone that we imagined had been placed there by our romantically idealized version of American Indians living in Brooklyn in an earlier century. On and about this stone my siblings and friends sat listening to stories concocted by a friend. We often asked him to repeat “The Tale of the Half Baked Terror.” We played many a game of marbles. Our favorite pastime was flipping cards that came in chewing gum packets. I became quite adept at timing the distance of the flip to the ground, thereby accumulating about five wooden cheese boxes full of picture cards that depicted ships, planes, and armaments used in the ongoing World War.
To access the yard you came through Grandma’s store, or from the street, down a lengthy hallway. Before you reached the door to the outside you had to pass through a bathroom. If the bathroom was occupied, you rapped on the door to let the occupant know you wished to pass through to the yard.
Grandma was a very strong-willed lady. She had come to America as a refugee from Byelorussia, with my mother and grandfather. She was instrumental in starting a dress shop after my grandfather passed away. Much of the time she spoke Yiddish, but had very good command of English which she picked up in the course of tending her shop.
I remember when Grandma announced the plans for the bathroom. She suffered a bad case of varicose veins, with an open sore that had to be bandaged frequently. She could not make the trip up the steep stairs to our bathroom. Therefore, she illegally contracted the building of a bathroom—illegal because of fire regulations. Here’s how she came to build it:
A neighbor, Mrs. Singer, owned a building three doors away that was a replica of Grandma’s. I remember Mrs. Singer because she often asked me to buy liverwurst for her cat. It was a standing joke among my siblings and myself that her cat was a scapegoat for her eating the non-kosher meat. My grandma was strictly kosher, so when she heard this rumor she frowned and exclaimed, “A Shanda!”—a disgrace.
One afternoon as my sister was walking past Mrs. Singer’s, the neighbor invited her in to see her new bathroom. My sister told Grandma about the bathroom, and there was no placating Grandma Schifra’s jealousy. She soon had a contractor draw up plans for her illegal construction. When the contractor was to begin the job, there arose a conflict as to how the two doors leading to the garden were to rotate. My sister resolved the conflict by noting that the first door should rotate inward toward the hallway, with the outer door swinging away toward the garden. I can visualize Grandma Schifra responding with an approving smile, and the exclamation, “Du host a kluge kopf, und a shayne ponim”—You have a smart head, and a pretty face.”
Ida Marie Berman
I have a stack of letters
That should have been answered long ago.
I am usually pretty good about this,
But now I have gotten slow,
So the stack keeps growing tall.
Maybe I’ll answer them by this time next fall.
After all, I have so many other things to do.
Playing bridge and luncheon too,
And watching a television show,
And to some movies I have to go.
And reading the paper, the puzzle is a must,
Don’t even have time to dust.
But if I want to get a letter back
I better start going through the stack.
That sweet and charming two year old
Devised a mean spirited plan
To get her brother in trouble.
Clutching her face as if in pain
She raised the other arm
Pointed an accusing finger
And stated to the mother
He, he hit me!
Little girl said the mother
What are you doing
Your brother did not strike you
He’s not even near you
Dropping her act
The two year old walked away, sending
A signal with her strutting body language
That she’d surely get him another day.