Former reporter elicits memoirs Susan White-Bowden helps senior citizens turn lives into poems

December 01, 1996|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The small group meets monthly at the assisted-living unit at the Keswick Multi-Care Center to reminisce and to read and write poetry under the gentle guidance of author and former television newswoman Susan White-Bowden.

But let the participants tell it:

They come together to share

their thoughts

And to see what Susan from

the farm has brought.

They laugh, they cry -- they

moan and groan,

But when they go, there's a

mellow tone

These are the opening lines of their recent composition about "Susan's sharing group at Carey House of Keswick." It's been almost two years since White-Bowden of Finksburg volunteered to lead the group, soon after her mother-in-law moved to the assisted-living unit.

She was approached by several residents of the Baltimore facility with a yen to write.

"You don't have to be able to physically write to create," she said. "They come up with the most beautiful thoughts, and I write them down to document these things for the next generation. Their special pasts, their memories of their life, the sadness and the joy -- all of it that has been building over 80 or 90 years."

White-Bowden has a gift for allowing the eight or so members to muse at length, while subtly guiding things along a poetic groove.

Recent sessions followed a seasonal theme appropriate to their mood: summer mellowing into fall and receding into winter. They usually began with bounty from the Finksburg farm where White-Bowden lives with her husband, former WMAR-TV newsman Jack Bowden.

Contemplating nasturtiums, Virginia D. Mitchell, 87, said wistfully, "I've been away from my garden so long.

"I like spring because things are starting to grow again," she said. "Life is coming back again, and that gives me courage."

Those who no longer see could still smell and touch and feel the flowers.

Catherine sees little, but soothes

our souls.

Catherine Harrison drew back as a petal from a late-blooming rose fell at her touch. She confided that she was so moved by the rose that it brought tears to her eyes.

White-Bowden, a 57-year-old grandmother of six, is a generation or two younger than most of the group's members, and she encourages them to share memories and poetry memorized in childhood -- a common practice then.

So it's not unusual, when she reads aloud from her fat volume of verse, to have several of them recite along with her.

Alice, a good talker with much to

say,

Reciting poems from an earlier

day.

That's Alice Winifred Manson, who at 94 recalls dozens of poems from her school days in Chicago.

But it's not as easy as it appears, Manson said. "I can recite a lot of them, but some of them get lost. But if I can calm myself down and not get excited because I've lost it, I can bring it back."

In an interview after one session, Manson credited a school principal who had overheard her reciting in fourth grade and called her to the office.

"I thought, 'Oh, what have I done that's wrong?' She took me once a week to the auditorium and said I didn't enunciate clearly enough," Manson recalled. "She was seated at the back and gave me things to read. And until she was satisfied, she had me come down there -- and I really owe her. It was she that challenged me."

Another of the more active participants is Rose Weiner, 82, a woman full of ideas and poetic turns of phrase.

Rose speaks words direct from the

heart

Where love and humor and hope

play a part.

When White-Bowden brought a bittersweet vine, Weiner observed, "It's like human nature, human will: We struggle to stay alive, we don't want to die, we fight it -- and sometimes we become very strong in this fight to survive."

"It's like what we discuss here in this group," White-Bowden replied. "You let me benefit from your wonderful insights and wisdom accumulated through a lifetime."

Weiner was responsible for the lines most admired in a summer composition by the group:

A gentle wind rustled her hair,

Whispered a promise of sweet-

smelling air

Like the haunting scent of honey-

suckle

She felt a rekindling of an old love

affair

With nature.

"Every season reminds me of an egg," Weiner explained. "An egg represents a continuation of life and an egg is an eternal symbol."

Said White-Bowden: "That's a beautiful analogy," and she turned the discussion to the pluses and minuses of rain.

After reciting an appropriate passage from Robert Louis Stevenson, Manson commented, "With worries coming and going, coming and going, water brings peace."

As a girl in Chicago, she recalled, "I used to take a walk to the lake, about a mile away, if I was concerned about something, and just watch the waves roll in -- and there were plenty of them on Lake Michigan."

White-Bowden said she began leading the Carey House group to ease the way for her mother-in-law, Marion Bowden, "but it's turned out to be so much more than that. I've really gotten a lot out of it from them."

She was asked to teach a course entitled "Reminiscence: Writing from Memory" at the Johns Hopkins University School of Continuing Studies this spring as part of its Odyssey Certificate on Aging.

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