In the past month my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I have traveled to Seattle, Long Island, Milwaukee and Champaign. We’re home for a while now, and finally all three of the memoir-writing classes I lead for Chicago senior citizens are in full swing. We started out with a bang after my travel experiences inspired me to assign “Waking Up in a Strange Room” as a writing topic.
None of the seniors came back with anything terribly lurid, but one 80-year-old did read a playful piece about being propositioned on the El back when he was “only” 76 years old. Bill wears leg braces and uses crutches to get around, and though he’d said no to the proposition, the mere idea that someone had wanted to “wake up in a strange room” with him left him light on his feet the rest of that day.
One of the more moving stories was about one writer’s first day in the dorms during her freshman year at Kalamazoo College. Her essay described her roommate’s mother eyeing her up and down before finally asking a question: “Where are you from?” She said she was from Chicago, and the mother pulled her daughter out of the dorm room and rushed down to the staff office to speak with school authorities. Sixty years later , this writer can still remember exactly how it felt to wake up by herself in an attic room the next morning — school authorities had moved her there after the mother insisted her daughter “not room with a Negress.”
We heard stories about waking up in hospital beds, in foreign hotel rooms, in an eco-lodge in Nepal, a palace in Venice, a hut in India. Mary’s piece was about waking up in a tatami room with a kotatsu (fire/footwarmer) in the 1950′s during a ski trip with fellow high school exchange students in Japan. “Four girls were in each tatami room, and we ate breakfast and dinner on the square table over the kotatsu with our feet down on the ledge in the pit so we could keep warm,” she wrote. “At night we used futons as floor mats and covering, and lying on our backs with our toes right under the edge of the futon that covered the table, the warmth flowed right into our cozy sleeping spaces.”
Mary’s train ride to the mountains was as intriguing as the room in the ski lodge. “The dash for the train was frenetic, with hordes of people crowding the doorways, but we all managed to get inside two cars,” she wrote. . “The girls got seats, while the boys climbed to the luggage racks or crawled under the seats to lie down for the six-hour ride to Nagano, the Japanese Alps.”
Mary had written another essay about her year in Japan back when I assigned “Feeling Homesick” as a topic, and she sent both essays to one of those gallant boys who’d slept in the luggage rack on that train. When Mary was driving me to class the other week, she told me she’s kept up with this friend ever since they were both American teenagers in Japan, and that he is developing Alzheimer’s disease now.
“He was still able to send me an email, though,” she said. “He told me my essay sparked a memory for him.” Mary’s essay had also motivated him to write his own piece about another train trip he’d taken during his year as an exchange student, and his wife sent a letter telling Mary that her Japan memoirs had not only motivated her husband to write, but also motivated him to try using a computer again.
“She said it was the first time he had used the computer in two months,” Mary told me, reaching over from the driver’s seat to pat me on the thigh. “So look what these memoirs produce!”