“This is the duty of our generation as we enter the twenty-first century -- solidarity with the weak, the persecuted, the lonely, the sick, and those in despair. It is expressed by the desire to give a noble and humanizing meaning to a community in which all members will define themselves not by their own identity but by that of others.” – Elie Wiesel
“Look at this!” She handed me the local newspaper and stood there with a smile on her face. For a moment, she looked like she was about ten years old. Her voice held the excitement of a young girl who just discovered that she could, in fact, do a cartwheel on the front lawn. On the front page of the section of paper was a story about a 92 year-old man who had just written his first book, a memoir. She was beaming.
She is almost 80 and she is writing for the first time. A former nurse, she is a petite woman, no more than 5 feet tall. She walks gingerly, as though every part of her hurts. She has delicate hands with long, thin fingers. She carries a small calendar filled with dates and times and the names of the people she speaks to. It helps her remember her life. It is wrapped with a well-worn rubber band to hold in the many slips of paper and note cards stuffed inside. Life’s cheat sheets.
She joined the writing group just over a month ago and she has become a regular. Sometimes when we are writing, she lets out just the faintest sigh. She has forgotten what something is called. I understand. It happens to me too. “Just keep going,” I reassure her. “It will come back.” And it usually does. She is always waiting for me when I arrive, anxious to see what stories will reveal themselves on that day.
“What do you do in there?” a colleague asked as we sat together in the dining room and chatted. It was such a simple question and yet, I searched for an answer that would do it justice. To describe it seemed to miss the point. The residents call it a writing class but class denotes something academic, something taught. It’s not really about the writing, I wanted to say. It’s not about syntax and descriptions and correct punctuation. It’s not like that. It’s more about… well, about this:
“On March 15, 1939, I was awakened by a very strange noise coming from the street. We had wide windowsills and I always loved to sit on them and spend hours watching the goings on on the street. On this night, I headed for the windowsill. Down on the street were many soldiers, goose-stepping up the street. My mother came in and called to me. "Get away from the window. They must not see you."On that fateful day, life as she knew it changed forever. An innocent young girl who sat on the windowsill, her knees curled under her petite frame, watched as Nazi soldiers invaded her beloved Prague. A moment emblazoned in her memory. An historic moment told through the eyes of a young girl.
I was never allowed to sit on that windowsill again.”
“I was on the last children’s transport out of Czechoslovakia,” she tells us, her voice punctuating the word ‘last’ to let us know that not one day goes by that she isn’t grateful for that twist of fate.
It is an image I cannot get out of my head.
I turned to my colleague. “That’s what it’s about. That’s what we do. We take risks together. We share stories of our lives and in doing so we open each other’s eyes to something new, to a different possibility of what can be.” Inside this home for those who have none, we’re building a community.
And just like that 92 year-old, writing his first book, it just goes to show you. It’s never too late to start.