A small crowd gathered around the fireplace of The Waters on 50th on Jan. 25 for the launch party of a book published by the Fulton senior home’s writers club. With a copy of the tall paperback in hand, the writers took turns sharing their contributions.
“I’m sorry if I miss some words,” said Jeanne Dyste, 94, with a chuckle. “I lost my glasses; my son found these in his car.”
Entitled “Distinctly I Remember: More Stories We Love to Tell,” the book features a collection of memoirs, short stories and thoughts written by eight residents in the home’s Writers Group, two of whom died before the book could be printed. Themes range from notions of home to living with loss to celebrating love. The book is available for purchase at The Waters on 50th.
All of the writers were between the ages of 80 and 95, and much of their writing is influenced by the experience of growing up in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. Kathleen Novak, the anthology’s editor, said she compiles all of the work the writers complete in the class and selects some of the best from everyone. Many of the stories come to her in all forms, including handwritten, printed and typewritten.
Arminta Miller, 80, wrote in the book about a time shortly after World War II ended when she went inside to drink a glass of water after playing jump rope and saw a man peeking through her front window to look at her mother in the other room.
“I whispered quietly, ‘Mother, someone is looking at you,’” Miller read at the launch party. “When she glanced up to see what I was talking about, she threw her arms into the air and screamed.”
It was Miller’s oldest brother, whom she had not seen in three and a half years while he served as a medical corpsman in Germany.
“I hardly remembered his face, but our family had never been more happy,” she wrote.
The writing group began in 2016 when Novak, a poet and novelist, heard that some residents of The Waters wanted a more intensive writing class in the facility. While visiting her father who lived there, she started a workshop where a handful of residents met twice a month for an hour and practiced with various writing prompts she brought forward.
Their first book, “Cardboard in Our Shoes” was published that year and was so popular Novak had to get it reprinted two more times. About 250 copies have been sold.
“Through publishing you keep these stories going,” Novak said at the January reading. “Even if that book is sitting on a shelf 50 years from now, people will pick it up and read those experiences. And if they’re on a laptop or in a banker’s box, it’s not the same as being in a book, you know?”
For most of the writers, the club has provided a common space to share stories and reminisce about experiences they all remember. Despite some of the writers growing up in different cities around the country, including Brooklyn, Stillwater and Milwaukee, all recall the impact of the polio virus, the loss of loved ones overseas in World War II and the act of putting cardboard inside their shoes to make them last longer when money was tight.
“Most of the people haven’t done very much writing, and then they just find themselves, and there’s this sense of purpose,” Novak said. “You get to that point in your life where everything is just kind of whizzing by you, and then all of a sudden you’re writing these stories [and] other people want to listen to them.”
Kate Kelly said her mother, June, often can’t wait to talk to her and her siblings about the writing classes. The fact that she is a published author makes her even more excited to share her work with her neighbors and grandchildren.
“It’s fascinating what Kathleen comes up with for prompts; it’s like an unfinished sentence that just begs you to think about something,” Kate Kelly said. “I think it really has a ripple effect, through the book and the conversation [it initiates].”
Novak believes that the writing group brings people together, despite age or illness.
Janet Shapiro, a writer who passed away last May, still came to every meeting, even while facing the later stages of Alzheimer’s. Despite not being able to write anymore, she would listen to what others said in the group and, once probed by her husband, tell her own stories to him to write down.
“I would read them out loud to the group for her — she’d sit next to me — and everyone could connect with her,” Novak said. “It was just beautiful.”
Maggie Shryer read for her husband, Davis Shryer, who also died before the book was published. She said at the reading, “I think one of the qualities of the group [is] that you get listened to. And that is so important. It’s more important the older you get.”