During Oscars week this year I asked the seniors in the memoir-writing classes I lead to choose a title of one of the films nominated for best picture and use it as the topic for their next essay.
- The Big Short: Know any short people with big personalities? Any stories about investments? Short circuits?
- Brooklyn: Ever live there? Know someone who does? Were you a Dodgers fan?
- Mad Max: Any friends/enemies/ family members/pets named Max?
- Room: Is there a certain classroom you still remember? Do friends and family gather in the kitchen at parties? If you are a musician, do you have a favorite practice room? What room do you do your writing in? Explore that room in words, as if you’re seeing it for the first time.
- Spotlight: Do you love/hate being in the spotlight? Anyone you know who does?
- The Martian: Describe a time or event in your life when you felt like you were from another planet, or describe someone you’ve known in your life who was so unique or unusual that they seem like they came from another planet. Orrrrr, if you were a fan of Gemini, Apollo or other space missions, tell your readers why that is. do you like science fiction? Write about that.
The Revenant and Bridge of Spies were also on the list, but I didn’t share any advice on how to approach those two titles, because, well, I didn’t have any idea.
My writers had ideas, though. Michael chose Bridge of Spies and wrote about working on a ship in the British Virgin Islands when he was just 20 years old. His opening line? “Captain Kimberly had one eye.” Mel used Mad Max to write about a friend in high school, and Judy did that, too: She wrote about her pal Maxine. Andrea chose The Big Short and wrote about two guys she’d dated in her teens. Both happened to be 6’7”, and one of them liked to slow dance. “I spent a lot of time smashed into his stomach!”
Most writers chose Room as a topic. We heard fun stories about making room, running out of room, rooms in dining halls, roommates, dorm rooms and hospital rooms. Nancy grew up on a farm in central Illinois and wrote lovingly about their kitchen. Every day after school their oversized oak kitchen table transformed into a desk. “My sister and I sat at the table, enjoyed a snack, and then began our homework.”
The kitchen became an office anytime Nancy’s father conducted farm business. “During income tax season he always had piles AND PILES of papers all over the table,” she wrote. “We had to put up a card table for a few weeks while he dealt with the paperwork.”
No one chose The Martian or Revenant as a writing topic, but a few wrote about being the center of attention at some part of their lives and how it felt to be in the…you guessed it…spotlight.
A couple writers chose Brooklyn as a topic. One of the Lincoln Park Village classes happened to meet on the very Thursday that Marjorie’s granddaughter in Brooklyn turned nine. Marjorie wrote about Simona.
Wanda chose Brooklyn as a topic as well. She’s been in the class I lead at the Chicago Cultural Center more than ten years, and still, every essay she writes lets me in on something new about her life story.
This one was no exception.
Wanda will be 95 years old this year, and while yes, she suffers with aches and pains, 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.”
Wanda has lived in more than 50 different apartments or houses in her lifetime. Her mother Geneva Johnson worked “In private family” and had to leave Wanda every Sunday to take off and live at the houses she took care of. Wanda lived with different relatives or family friends here and there. Sometimes, she lived with strangers. The class she is in is subsidized by the City of Chicago’s Department on Aging and meets downtown on Wednesdays, which has long been Wanda’s favorite day of the week. “That was mama’s day off.”
It wasn’t until Wanda was 15 years old that she discovered her beloved mama was not her birth mother. Her birth mother, Ruby Betty, lived in Brooklyn. Wanda didn’t meet “Mizz Betty” until she was 32 years old. “She had a personality all her own, and I had to fill in some of the gaps of her life story,” Wanda wrote. “She and a twin sister were born in Kingston, Jamaica to a black cobbler father and a French-Scottish mother.”
After Ruby and her twin attended secondary school in England, they moved to Hamilton, Ontario. Wanda was born in Canada. “Here the story gets fuzzy,” she wrote. “I have heard several Reader’s Digest versions of the events that led up to me and my coming to America.”
Wanda and Mizz Betty visited back and forth for the next 32 years. “I enjoyed a warm association with the little lady with the Jamaican, British, Brooklyn, and Yiddish accent,” she wrote, acknowledging that in the end, she realized their “personalities were at the opposite ends of the pole.” She ends her Brooklyn essay saying she has no regrets. “I am happy for the life I had with Mama Geneva.”
Wanda’s classmate Sharon Kramer compiles essays by writers in the Wednesday “Me, Myself and I” class on the Beth’s Class blog. You can read Wanda’s Mizz Betty from Brooklyn essay in its entirety there — and see photos of Mizz Betty, too.