Memoirs: Golden age of writing Senior citizens pen their life histories, find 'buried treasure'

December 27, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Take a moment from the chaos of your lives and listen to the old folks.

Gwendolyn Biddle, 72, studied flamenco dancing in the Gypsy caves of Spain. Jackie Evert is grateful, after 69 years, to see "God most often in other people." And in 1932, Wilhelmina Brown fell under the spell of stories in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Georgia.

"I will never forget," she recalls, "the smile on the face of my teacher when she found a small, ragged poetry book among the used books that we received as hand-me-downs from the white school."

These are regular Baltimoreans -- the kind you wait behind at the market and sing with at church -- who had a notion that their workaday lives were interesting enough to put on paper.

On Tuesday afternoons, they've been showing up at the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens on Park Avenue for a course in memoir writing. Last week, the city's Commission on Aging published 100 copies of their work: 89 pages of remembrance called "Buried Treasure."

Some of the authors didn't see the significance of their adventures until pens began moving across paper.

"In the midst of living your life you tend to think it's mundane," says Evert, a retired social worker whose chapter titled "Glimpses of My Spiritual Journey" catalogs loss, hardship and recovery. The writing helped me see that there was a pattern to my life, that as I get older I get closer to God and was being led all along."

The class costs $12 and was taught by Isaac Rehert, a longtime staff writer for The Sun who retired in 1988. A senior himself, Rehert was lauded by his students for valuing substance over structure and taking a gentle approach with his aging apprentices.

"A more focused, more conventional piece of journalism could have been achieved if one experienced writer had produced a text," writes Rehert in the book's introduction. "But it wouldn't have been the same. These people wanted -- demanded the right -- to write their own stories. [They] began by having a life. In the process of writing about it, they have become writers."

As with all writers who care about the words that follow their

byline, they took some exceptions to the editing.

"I had in there about my childhood and Duke Ellington, and they didn't use it," says Gwendolyn Biddle, who hauls sewing machines to Costa Rica at her own expense to teach the poor how to make clothes.

Divided into episodes from the authors' lives, the book is largely a document of the Great Depression, World War II and segregation as lived by African-Americans born in the last gasps of the Roaring '20s. All but one of the 13 writers are black.

"I'm old enough to have known a little of what they lived through, how tough things were during segregation," says Edith B. Smith, the Waxter program director. "But not what these people went through. It seems absolutely intolerable."

And yet, when the finished product arrived at Waxter this week, the atmosphere was simply giddy, with everyone signing their work and posing for snapshots like high school yearbook days of a half-century ago.

Calvin Tolbert, a 72-year-old retired post office worker, told anyone nearby that his story began on Page 41. The story -- about being sent from Baltimore to Pensacola, Fla., as a Navy recruit during the war -- is not nearly as pleasant as the man who endured it.

"At no time [on a bus] could you sit beside or face a white person," Tolbert writes.

"Not knowing this, I sat in the rear of the bus facing some Caucasian sailors. Suddenly a voice rang out -- 'Shine on the side seat.' The bus came to a screeching halt and everybody stared at me. A kindly colored lady said: 'They's talking to you, son.' I asked the driver if I could have my fare back. He agreed.

"I stood there on the street and thought about what had just happened. I was numb. Here was an American sailor, in uniform, in the midst of a war, being insulted by the very people he has sworn to sacrifice his life to protect."

Tolbert, who was known as a youngster for his keen memory and love of books, wrote his story out in longhand before typing it into a computer.

"I knew absolutely nothing about writing," says Tolbert, who bought 10 copies of the book at $5 each to give as Christmas presents. "There's so many things in my life that I didn't write about that I'm going to take the class again."

Says Wilhelmina Brown, 72: "It's a new beginning, and it's not finished. I learned that things that happened to me when I was 12 bloomed out 30 years later. I hadn't put Martin Luther King's preaching together with what my grandfather always said -- 'All we want is the same chance as the other race.'

"I didn't connect that together until I started to write," she says. "I intend to do much, much more."

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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