The memoir-writing class I teach for senior citizens at the Chicago Cultural Center was cancelled on Feb. 2 due to the blizzard. You know, I’ve seen other winters, and I’ve made it through, but this one doesn’t seem the same. After a phone call to Flo to make sure she was doing alright, I dialed Wanda’s number to see if she was weathering the storm, too.
My regular blog readers know Wanda from some of her essays I’ve excerpted here. 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 is 88 years old, 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.” When I asked her to describe the storm to me, 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 tell you stories 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 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. “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!”
My regular blog readers are also familiar with Hanna, the oldest student in our writing class. Hanna turned 91 in January and plowed through the snow with Speedo, her walker, to make it back to class last Wednesday. “He doesn’t like the snow,” Hanna admitted. “But he got me here.” She brought an essay she’d written about the blizzard, and I’m excerpting from it here :
The snow muffled the sounds. The silence is stunning. The view is interesting, the ice shelf hugs the shoreline totally, the lake is miles away. It’s all white as far as I can see. Almost blinding. The trees stick out and relieve the monotone, the shoreline and Belmont harbor are clearly defined, but all white. The sky is light gray. I wish I could paint this totally deserted moonscape with nothing moving, the gray sky just a few shades darker.
And of course, by writing this essay, Hanna had painted the landscape for us. She just used a pen rather than a brush. I walked home after class with a spring in my step. The Yaktracks on my feet were working, Harper could guide at full speed, and Wanda and Hanna’s positive words were helping me look at snow in a different way.
Once home safe & sound I found a message in my inbox that lifted my spirits even higher. You might recall that Francine Rich, my publisher at Blue Marlin Publications was so moved after reading excerpts of Hanna’s writing here on my blog that she volunteered to collect and format all of Hanna’s essays for her. Francine is making sure she sticks with Hanna’s original text but is making all necessary grammatical changes and, in some cases, renaming the stories.
All this work is taking Francine longer than she had anticipated. The email message that made me so happy came from Hanna, she’d heard from Francine. Three files had been formatted that morning, and the task had taken Francine a little over an hour to complete. From Francine’s note to Hanna:
There are 83 files. If I try to devote an hour a day to this, it should take me about four weeks to complete the process. So I figure I’ll be done about mid-March.
This is such a generous, generous gesture on Francine’s part. Thanks to Francine, Hanna will have all her essays organized, formatted and ready to send out to agents and publishers before her 92nd birthday. “I’m having fun with it,” Francine wrote in her note to Hanna. “And may even surprise you with the end results…”. If all those agents and publishers out there are too dimwitted to take on Hanna’s book, it will already be formatted. Hanna and/or her family can self-publish.
All you Hanna Bratman fans out there get ready to stand in line. I predict a trail around the corner and down the block at her first book signing.