All four of the memoir-writing classes I lead for Chicago senior citizens are in full swing again. Their first assignment? 1966.
93-year-old Wanda Bridgeforth piped up immediately after hearing the prompt. “That was a great year!” She came back the next week with an essay about her daughter, Wanda, Jr. getting married in 1966. “I inherited a wonderful son-in-law, and after Junior left, I inherited her bedroom, too.” She transformed Junior’s bedroom into a sewing room. Wanda turned 44 years old in 1966, and it was the first time in her life she ever, ever had her own room.
Writers in the memoir-writing classes I lead span from 61 years old to 93 years old, and this writing prompt betrayed their ages. Michael Graff, one of the youngest writers in my classes, was only 12 in 1966 and wrote about attending his first boy-girl party that year. “The purpose was for boys and girls to get together in a setting where they weren’t hostile toward each other,” he wrote. “At age 12 there were no real relationships, no sexual conquests, and no truly broken hearts. What was most important was being on the invitation list.”
Most of the boy-girl party invitations were sent by mail. “However, a select group of girls, the crueler ones, came to school with stacks of envelopes to hand out,” he wrote. “Some did it with subtlety, but some did it with drama of a starlet handing out Oscars at the Academy Awards.”
Of all the boy-girl parties in 1966, young Michael was only invited to one. “I told myself it didn’t matter.” Michael’s essay ends with a description of party nights at home watching ‘Get Smart” on TV, playing with his Aurora race car set or sorting his coin collection. “The best revenge is living well.”
1966 was the first year tobacco companies had to print the Surgeon General’s warning on packs of cigarettes, and many writers mentioned smoking in their essays. Mary Lou Wade was pregnant that year and wrote about spending Memorial Day with her sister. “We lazed on the patio smoking Pall Malls and sipping weak gin and tonics,” she wrote. “1966 was before warnings of the damage of fetal alcohol syndrome, or if it existed, I didn’t heed it.”
Her healthy son was born on a memorable day: 6/6/66. “Even now when the date comes up, people comment of the sign of the devil,” she wrote. “Brendan is a successful artist now, and he shows no sign of the demonic traits.”
Lyndon Johnson was president in 1966, and the Vietnam War was escalating. None of the writers in my classes had served, but some had friends or family members who’d been drafted. One writer traveled to D.C. in 1966 to demonstrate against the war, and another wrote of joining the new organization Betty Friedan had founded that year: National Organization for Women (NOW). Her essay explained how that led to her involvement in the Chicago chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization years later.
Regan Burke was fighting against the war — and in favor of civil rights — in 1966, too. She wrote about meeting and marrying car enthusiast Jim Kelly, the father of her son Joe, that year and what ensued afterwards. “One weekend in March, Kelly drove to Florida with my mother’s boyfriend, Harry, for the annual Sebring 12-hour race that was the U.S. equivalent of France’s LeMans Grand Prix,” she wrote. “Baby Joe and I stayed home to help salvage the 1968 Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign. We roared down the highway in the gas-guzzling Austin Healy to Trenton, where I hoisted Joe into a backpack and joined McCarthy volunteers to knock on doors.”
Judy Roth got married in 1966, too, and her account of their honeymoon in Europe was a beautiful confirmation that love can truly be better the second time around. “We had a fine time except for the flight to England during which I sobbed much of the way, sure that I’d made a mistake getting married only fourteen months after my divorce,” she wrote. “I got over it by the time we landed and didn’t look back for 43 wonderful years.”