It’s Wanda Bridgeforth’s 94th birthday, and without telling Wanda, I asked her fellow writers in the Wednesday “Me, Myself and I” to surprise her with essays on “What I Learn from Wanda’s Wise Words” and read them aloud to her this morning. Here’s mine.
Wanda Bridgeforth has taught me the meaning of beauty. More specifically, the meaning of the word “Bee-you-tee-full.”
Nearly five years ago the Chicago Cultural Center had to cancel our “Me, Myself and I” memoir- writing class due to a blizzard. I dialed Wanda’s number that day to see if she was weathering the storm. When she heard my voice on the phone, she excused herself to turn down the radio. “I’m tired of hearing all those people calling in anyway,” she said. “All they’re doing is complaining about their long waits for the bus or the train, or the way the city didn’t shovel their street.”
Wanda will be 94 years old this month, and she is not a complainer. She credits her own upbeat attitude to her hardworking mother and her beloved uncle, Hallie B. “Hallie B. always told me that people who sit and mope with their head in their hands, well, they never see the good things coming their way.”
On that phone call in 2011, I asked Wanda to describe the storm that everyone around me was complaining about. She started out by using her favorite four-syllable word. “Bee-you-tee-full.”
Wanda has lived in more than 50 different apartments or houses in her lifetime. Her mother was a “domestic” and had to leave Wanda every Sunday to take off and live at the houses she took care of. Wanda lived with one relative one week, a friend the next, and sometimes, with complete strangers. “I tell you, Beth” she said to me once. “I could share stories with you about growing up that would make the hair curl on a bald man’s head.”
These days Wanda lives alone, perched in a small apartment in a South Side Chicago high-rise that overlooks Lake Michigan. She writes her essays for class while sipping on coffee, looking out her kitchen window and watching the birds and boats on the lake. “There was absolutely no horizon during the storm,” she told me during that blizzard in 2011. The sky was white, the ground was white, the lake was white. “Like someone had draped a fuzzy white blanket over my window.”
Wanda woke up at 3 a.m. the night of the storm and sat staring out of her window for hours. She’d never seen anything like it. It was stunning. “I drank coffee until I was drunk!” she laughed. “It was bee-you-tee-full!”
Happy 94th, my friend. Without you, I might be tempted to look at my own days as stormy, but having you in our memoir-writing class (and, more importantly, calling you a friend) makes my life bee-you-tee-full.
Wanda’s classmate Sharon Kramer compiles essays by writers in the “Me, Myself and I” class on the Beth’s Class blog. Look for essays by — and about –Wanda there.