Archive for the 'writing' Category

Dispatches from 20th Century immigrants, part two: Wanda

If you’ve followed our blog for a while, you know that Wanda Bridgeforth is a 95-year-old witty and talented writer who has attended the memoir writing class I lead in downtown Chicago for over a decade now. What you might not know about Wanda is that she is an immigrant: she was born in Canada.

You can link to the Beth’s Class blog to read Wanda’s essay about reconnecting with her biological mother 32 years later. The woman she has always affectionately called Mama is the woman who adopted Wanda as an infant and loved and raised her on Chicago’s South Side. Here’s a poem Wanda wrote about how Christmas was celebrated with her Mama long ago.

That's Wanda from way back on her 90th.

That’s Wanda from way back on her 90th. Photo courtesy Darlene Schweitzer.

Christmas Days

by Wanda Bridgeforth

“Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is nigh,”

Mama said with a twinkle in her eye.

“We have much to do,

There’s a job for each of you.”

Our thoughts went to Santa checking his list twice,

And Mama could tell him who had been nice.

Willie began to cry ‘cause he knew

After all, he’d been naughty a time or two.

Mama said, “The next thirty days are like Lent,

During them you’ll have time to repent.”

Daisy chains to make,

Pies, cakes and cookies to bake.

”We must clean every nook and cranny,

And have gifts for all, from baby to Granny.”

We’d get dressed

In our Sunday Best

And ride the bus to the store

Where tables of toys would cover the floor.

Santa will be there in his suit of bright red,

We’ll have our “pitcher took” with him in his sled.

After we give him our list

On the forehead we’ll be kissed,

And try to be good ‘til Christmas day

When Santa arrives in his big red sleigh.

Dispatches from 20th century immigrants, part one: Annelore

A number of the writers in the memoir classes I lead are immigrants, and for the next couple weeks I’m planning to feature essays these wonderful writers wrote when I asked them to describe the role food plays in their holiday traditions.

Let’s start with Annelore. She was born in Germany and met her American-born husband Roy in the early 1960s, when both of them worked in a small town on the Czech border. “I was working as a medical lab tech and Roy was in a special division of the U.S. Army,” she told me, explaining that he maintained Radar equipment for listening in on Czech and Russian conversation along the border. “It was a unit of 20 engineers and linguists and very secret – you could say he was a spy.”

A depiction of Christkind, the Christmas angel.

A depiction of Christkind, the Christmas angel.

The two of them married in Germany and relocated to his hometown in North Dakota in 1963, where they had three children. “Everybody knows that when we are far from home, when we are expatriated we tend to cling to tradition, to customs we are familiar with and that make us feel at home,” she wrote in an essay she titled Christmas Traditions. “Missing the wonderful winter Christmases from my childhood in Germany, I tried and tried to reconstruct them for my children year after year.”

Recreating her German Christmas traditions became even more challenging when Roy accepted an engineering position that required the family to spend the next couple decades relocating from country to country around the world. “It was not always easy to find the right ingredients to make it happen,” she wrote. “Live pine trees for example are sparse in deserts like Southern Patagonia or Egypt or in the tropical climate of the Caribbean.”

Listening to Annelore read her essay out loud in class made us all hungry. They started baking in late November, she said. Gingerbread. Stollen. Hazelnut cookies. Almond crescents. Cinnamon stars. Marzipan. “It was not always easy to bake in ‘third-world-ovens,’” she wrote.

For the children, the baking was all part of the anticipation for Christmas Eve. Depending on which country they were living in, it might start with a candlelight service at church. Wherever they were, friends were always invited to join them later for a small meal of Sauerkraut, sausages, steamed salmon, and dark bread. The Christmas tree usually was in the living room with the doors closed.

“Then, a tiny sound!” Annelore wrote. “The tinkling of a bell – Christkind must have come to put presents under the tree. “ She said Christkind comes in the guise of a small angel who slips through a window left open for that very purpose. Only then could they open the door to the sound of music and the sight of the beautiful tree. She described the large tray of cookies waiting in that room as well, and if they were living in a country where the weather outside was cold enough, the aroma of Gluehwein would fill the air. “For the adults this would be the time to settle into the spirit of Christmas, enjoying along with the children, presents, sweets, and music by candle light until late into the night,” she wrote. “Was there room for dessert? Never! But there was plenty of room for being grateful for friends, a delicious feast and of course, the tradition of celebrating together.”

Annelore’s classmate Sharon Kramer compiles essays by writers from the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead at the Chicago Cultural Center on the Beth’s Class blog, and you can read Annelore’s essay in its entirety there to find out how searching in Buenos Aires for a traditional goose almost left her serving fish for their feast one year.

His Sign Said ‘Please Help.’ So Jean Tried.

1987. A hot, humid day in Champaign, Ill. Mike and I are perched on stools at the Esquire Lounge. My folded cane sits atop the bar, forming a rigid white line that separates my beer glass from Mike’s. The discussion? How can I get to the pool on my own to swim laps.

The stranger sitting next to me interrupts. Her name was Jean, she said, and she couldn’t help but eavesdrop. “Are you talking about getting to the pool on campus?” she asks. I nodded. Newly blind back then, I didn’t have a Seeing Eye dog yet. I could hardly make it to the mailbox down the street. How was I going to get to the bus stop on my own? Not to mention the locker room, then to the edge of the pool to swim?

That's our friend Jean in her writerly book jacket photo.

That’s our friend Jean in her writerly book jacket photo. Click on the photo for more on her and her books.

“That’s easy!” Jean said. She was a swimmer. “I drive over to the campus pool every other day. I’ll just pick you up and take you with me.”

And that’s how I met Jean Thompson. During our drives to the pool, I found out she was a writer. A real writer. A really good writer. She taught creative writing at University of Illinois. Jean was a natural-born teacher, really — she knew when to set me free, let me try taking the bus and handle the pool on my own.

I’ve been swimming on my own ever since. I’ve been Jean’s friend ever since, too. And what a generous friend she’s been to me.

So it came as no surprise to hear Jean helped a man who was homeless — the real surprise is that an essay she wrote about doing so was published in the New York Times today. She didn’t tell me! Mike saw the piece, though, and read it aloud to me. You can read it online here.

I hope you do — you’ll see why I feel lucky to call her my friend.

One last letter: Dear Abby

My “Me, Myself and I”memoir-writing class meets this morning at the Chicago Cultural Center. Ages in that class span from 66 to 96, they’ve lived through a lot of election cycles, and it’ll be interesting to hear what they have to say about the decisions made yesterday.

I sure can’t think of anything myself to say for a blog post about the 2016 election, so instead, I’m publishing one last letter, this one written by a writer in the Monday memoir class I lead for Lincoln Park Village. I’d asked writers to write to someone in the future or past about this year’s election, and our guest blogger Pam Washburn read this letter to Abigail Adams out loud in class this past Monday, a day before the 2016 ballots were cast.


by Pam Washburn

I’m writing to you today to share news that I know will delight you. Tomorrow, the second Tuesday of November, Americans will be going to their local polling stations to vote for national political candidates. For the first time WE (I’m speaking, of course, of all registered male and female voters over the age of 18) will have the option to vote for a woman for president of the United States of America.

Dear Abby...

Dear Abby…

No one has ever forgotten your admonishment to your dear husband John and to the Continental Congress when it met in March of 1776. “Remember the ladies,” you said. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we do not have a voice, or Representation.”

After the defeat of the British, the hard work of forming a new government was grueling. You remained at home running the farm while your husband John was occupied in Boston and Philadelphia, seldom seeing you or the children.

General George Washington, selected unanimously, wasn’t sworn in as President until 1789, when your dear husband John joined the administration as Vice President. During the eight years that John served as Vice President to General Washington, and during the next four years when John and you served as President and First Lady, you must have had your hands full! Afterward, you were both abroad in France and England, serving to represent America’s interests overseas.

Unfortunately, the new federal constitution only enfranchised white men. In 1848 the first unofficial Women’s Rights Convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York, and it wasn’t until 1890 that the National Women’s Suffrage Association was founded. By then women were speaking out in public and writing letters to government officials and newspapers, seeking the right to vote and to have their concerns addressed.

In 1920 the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was approved by the States and became law. Women could finally vote in America.

Let me tell you about the current candidate that I hope will win the Presidency. Her name is Hilary Rodham Clinton, she’s married to a former two-term US President, and their daughter is a lovely young woman. Mrs. Clinton, an attorney, has already served as a US Senator and as our country’s Secretary of State. She began her career 40 years ago, as a public-interest lawyer fighting for children’s rights.

Her opponent is a thoroughly disreputable, reputedly wealthy man who speaks vilely, in public, about women. He knows nothing about governing, and he lies without compunction.

Unfortunately, the electorate seems to be evenly divided between the two candidates, which I find disheartening. Of course I’ll be voting tomorrow; I just hope I’m joined by others who still want to see America try to live up to the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence.

We may not know the outcome until Friday morning—please wish us luck!


Pam Washburn

My sister Cheryl’s letter to our dad

Have I told you that one of my sisters is enrolled in the memoir-writing class I lead in Printers Row? It’s true! Cheryl chose to write a “letter to dad” for this week’s assignment just like guest blogger Bruce Hunt did yesterday. I was so young when our dad died that I don’t remember him, and I appreciate Cheryl for agreeing to share this letter to give you a glimpse of what our dad — and her relationship with him — was like.

A letter to the future or past generation about the 2016 national election

by Cheryl May

Dear Dad,

I know politics wasn’t a big topic of conversation around our house when I was growing up, but I assume you remember the last Presidential Election that you voted in on November 8, 1960.

Remember the incumbent, President Dwight Eisenhower, was not eligible for re-election. He was the first president affected by the 22nd amendment that said the president could only serve two terms and the 1960 election was also the first-time voters from Alaska and Hawaii could vote after they had become states the year before.

Cheryl's collection of campaign pins she's saved over the years.

Cheryl’s collection of campaign pins she’s saved over the years.

I remember people wondering if the Democratic Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts, a Roman Catholic, could ever beat the Republican Vice-President incumbent Richard Nixon. But Kennedy proved to have excellent campaigning skills that far outweighed Nixon’s experience.

I wonder if you remember the commercial that was televised from a press conference with President Eisenhower? He was asked if he could give an example of a major idea of Vice-President Nixon’s that he had heeded. Eisenhower responded with a flip comment, “If you give me a week, I might think of one…”

Both Eisenhower and Nixon claimed he was joking but I’m sure it stayed on voters’ minds as they went into their voting booth.

Dad, when people go to their voting booth on November 8, 2016, they’re going to have a lot more on their minds then whether a candidate is Catholic or if a candidate might not be getting the backing of one guy he was counting on.

First of all, we have a woman nominated for the President of the United States for the first time, can you believe that? She’s a Democrat and if she wins she will succeed our first Black President. Lots of changes since 1960, right?

The Republican candidate this year was never a lawyer, Senator, Congressman or Governor…. he’s a business man. We did have a Republican candidate who was a movie actor and was elected President of the United States in the 1980’s, but he had also served as a Governor of California. (Actually you may have known him as a Democrat because he switched parties in 1962.)

The campaigning of the 2016 candidates has included name calling, lying, accusations of womanizing, (excuse my language Dad) but groping and even possible rape. Needless to say, this is not a national election that you could have ever imagined, and I can’t even imagine what the Presidential election will be like 50 years from now.

Love, Cheryl

Dear dad, I’m sorry I was so hard on Ike

Here’s an essay by another writer in one of my memoir classes. After 80-year-old Bruce read this letter out loud about how he’s feeling now, a few days before the 2016 presidential election, I asked, “You miss your dad, don’t you?” Bruce answered, “I sure do.”

by Bruce Hunt

Nov. 3, 2016

Dear Dad:

It’s probably a good thing you did not live long enough to endure this presidential election. At the time of your death in 1979, you seemed to believe that civilization was in decline. I never quite knew whether your golden age was Greece or the Enlightenment, however. Maybe it was the Age of the Explorers? I do know this, though: you certainly would not be persuaded by Donald Trump’s declared intention to “Make America Great again.

Frederick Atherton Hunt is pictured at about age 45.  At that time, he was a partner in his family’s law firm in Boston.

Frederick Atherton Hunt is pictured at about age 45. At that time, he was a
partner in his family’s law firm in Boston.

Were you still alive, you and I might engage in a lively discussion about whether there are any historical analogues to our present circumstance. Did the “Know-Nothings” of the late 19th century serve as precursor to the anti-intellectual tenor of the 2016 election? Was the language Taft and Teddy Roosevelt used to pillory each other comparable to the vile accusations that float around on social media?

The lack of civility would surely be disturbing to you. You belong to a long line of respectful citizens. Your devotion to the Republican Party stemmed in large measure from your appreciation for the decent men who held office in Massachusetts. Leveret Saltonstall was a distinguished senator, reelected a number of times. You were proud that Massachusetts voters elected Edward Brooke, the first African American senator in US history. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. had a notable pedigree, although he was not a personal favorite of yours.

Democracy has always been messy. And you harbored secret (and sometimes not so secret) concerns about mob rule. I still recall your wondering whether perhaps a benevolent oligarchy might be the most effective government. Some say we are building a corporate oligarchy even now, with so much wealth in the hands of a very few families. I doubt that you would see this as progress or as benevolent.

I recall how torn you were in 1960 when you had to choose between a Harvard man who happened to be a Democrat, and A California Republican whose character you mistrusted. You voted for Nixon anyway.

You would be appalled by the character of the present Republican candidate. How he became the nominee is still a mystery to me. At first I thought it was a marketing effort to build the Trump brand. I still wonder if he cares a whit about governance.

Wait. I forget. You missed a major turning point in Republican political affairs.

Since Ronald Reagan (you likely will remember him as a spokesman for GE) became president, he made a casual comment: ”Government is not the solution, Government is the problem.” That quote has provoked a rash of cheap jokes, and it has made the phrase “civil service” the object of cynical scorn.

Elsewhere (see The First Time I Voted for President, Nov 8, 2012) I have acknowledged and apologized for my cavalier dismissal of Dwight Eisenhower as an inarticulate midwestern rube. That crass judgment stemmed from my intellectual arrogance and you called me on it more than once. In hindsight Ike got many of the big things right and certainly his temperament was more presidential than Candidate Trump, whose reputation is built on the 282 people, places, and things he has insulted on Twitter. (A communications vehicle too complicated to explain here.)

I hope you will not view this letter as an elitist appeal for more politically correct discourse while ignoring the real pain of people whose dreams have been dashed.
“Festina lente” make haste slowly you often cautioned me. I am hopeful about our messy democracy and I am looking forward to electing the first woman president. Now that is a topic I would be eager to discuss with you.


Voting early in Wrigleyville

This week I asked the writers in my memoir classes to write a letter to past or future generations about how they’re feeling now, a week before the 2016 presidential election. Sharon Kramer lives near Wrigleyville, and I thought this piece she wrote about voting early last Sunday while Cub fans were gathering for the fifth game of the World Series really knocked it out of the park. Enjoy!

I Saw America Sunday

by Sharon Kramer

That's me with Sharon Kramer and three other writers from our downtown class:, Audrey Mitchell, Wanda Bridgeforth, and Darlene Schweitzer.

That’s Sharon Kramer to my left and three other writers from our downtown class: Audrey Mitchell, Wanda Bridgeforth, and Darlene Schweitzer.

I saw America Sunday. Oh, I’ve seen America before. Videos of policemen shooting young black men. A candidate for President of the United States degrading women, the disabled and Muslims. Anger from citizens not able to replace a lost job. Hatred of our first African American president. Yes, I’ve seen too much of that America. But Sunday in Chicago, for one brief moment, America was working the way my imaginings told me it should.

I decided to vote early at my public Library on Belmont Ave. Just blocks from Wrigley Field, where the Cubs would later win game 5 in the World Series. At Clark and Diversey, about 100 policemen and women were lining up on bicycles, like a chorus line on stage, guns at their sides (I always check that), on their way to the Cubs game at Clark and Addison to keep the peace. Intermingled in this bike parade were everyday men, and women, and children dressed in blue Cubs shirts and Halloween costumes, going to the same place, inadvertently caught in the police bike procession. Nothing happened. Nobody acted self-important. It was just a long display of people and police on bikes on their way to an event. I felt like I was in the audience of Radio City Music Hall and the program was about to begin.

When I got to the voting location, there was a long line. The library was technically closed on Sunday, so I couldn’t take out a book to read. I’d left my cell at home, too. So, I had nothing to do but look at the waiting people. The shoes were mostly sneakers. All sizes and colors and styles coming together to vote. Maybe what we all have in common is sneakers.

The clothes represented young and old — black elastic-waisted pants (like mine), skirts too short coupled with torn stockings and lots of sweatshirts and baseball caps. The hair was gray, black, purple, blonde, brown and pink. The faces Black, Latino, Asian, White.

Not one word of complaint. The long line, curved and orderly. The only loud voice was from one of the voting officials trying to straighten out a line or push us closer together. No one took offense. It was just someone trying to do his job. Everyone was eager to vote. Graceful and beautifully choreographed in curvy lines, I half expected to hear a rendition of “God Bless America.”

On my way home after voting, the Trick-or-Treaters were mixed up with the Cubs fans and they were all mixed up with the police and early voters. Proud parents moving their young princesses and witches from store to store to add goodies to already bulging bags. Another dance. This time in technicolor, with joy, humor and generosity.

A perfect confluence of goodness was happening right before my eyes — voting, Halloween, innocence, pride, passion, and humor, on a lovely fall day. Everyone respected everyone else’s space. It was the way I want to think of my country. Everyone moving in their own direction, to their own song. Yet somehow, still together, respecting one another.

Will I ever see this perfect storm of civility and graciousness again? I hope so.

Sharon Kramer compiles essays by writers from the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead at the Chicago Cultural Center at a blog called Beth’s Class. This “I Saw America Sunday” essay was first published there, along with pieces written by her fellow Wednesday writers. Check them out!

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