Hodara Memoir Workshops Showcase
Hodara Memoir Workshops Showcase
On Tuesdays, writers gather around the heavy wooden table at the Hudson Valley Writers Center to share stories from their lives. Week after week, they come with their memories of love, loss and life-altering events, while outside, the majestic Hudson River changes with the seasons.
One by one, the writers read their work aloud, sometimes pausing as a train whooshes past. There are tears, chuckles, gasps of surprise; there is admiration, the acknowledgement of courage, sometimes gratitude that a writer has captured a poignant truth and pinned it onto the page.
And there is critique: suggestions of where to add details, what to delete, how to end the piece. Someone is confused; someone wants to see the setting; someone wonders when what happened took place. One person says, can you describe how you felt? Another asks, what is the story you are trying to tell?
The writers listen to one another, digesting the feedback they receive. They read their revisions the next week, and sometimes the week after that. Words are changed, paragraphs are rearranged, meaning is deepened. Their stories evolve until they are done.
And now they are here, for you to appreciate. The Hodara Memoir Workshops Showcase presents polished pieces completed in the center’s morning and afternoon memoir workshops. They are the products of receptive minds and concentrated effort. They are about a range of subjects, but they share one trait: they are all true stories of lives being lived.
— Susan Hodara, instructor
By Bonnie Chwast
The golden maple bowl was a big glowing half moon to my young eyes, fallen from the sky. Entering the dining room from the kitchen, it stood to the right of the doorway on three wooden legs positioned like a tripod to support it. It was wide-bellied and, suspended on its legs, almost half my size when I was five years old.
The room it occupied was filled with Heywood Wakefield furniture – a blonde oval dining table in the middle, with a matching mirrored buffet to one side to make the cramped room seem larger. A simple lighting fixture above the table gave the entire room an amber glow. It was a warm space you wanted to eat in together. We seldom did.
We were a family that came and went, catching meals on the fly in the kitchen when our stomachs signaled it was time. My father worked long hours as a policeman on the beat. My mother taught school far from home and came back tired and distracted. Meals were not times for social connection; they were practical necessities.
Except when my grandmother came with her culinary gifts in tow, none of which she had passed on to my mother. Then, the scents of blueberry muffins, freshly made applesauce, just-roasted beef and finger-formed meatballs filled the house and spilled out into the neighborhood when the windows were open. My brother and I arrived home from school deliriously hungry on the days she came to cook, and we would eat and talk with abandon as she stood nearby us at the kitchen table.
The dining room was never important in my childhood, at least not for dining. It mattered because it housed the bowl, the great big three-legged wooden bowl to the right of the doorway. The bowl was the designated repository for all our belongings when we returned home from school. Gloves, scarves, hats, bags, books, toys, miscellany all found their way there. Jackets were hung on the hooks at the back door, but everything else went into the bowl.
The bowl satisfied my mother’s need for tidiness at all costs. Messiness was painful to her, like a nagging injury; it put her in a bad mood. We were children, careless and carefree, while she was fighting to keep gloom at bay. She managed the challenge by tucking away our playthings in basement closets and crawlspaces, and by organizing the ones remaining in view meticulously on shelves. She managed by discarding whatever she considered excess without consultation from us. And she managed by allowing the bowl to absorb the overflow of our belongings, which, if left unattended on the floor, were like flotsam and jetsam to her, a wrack line of ugly childhood debris.
As a kid, l learned the value of neatness early to maintain peace in the house. My mother yelled less when our things were put away. I learned as I grew older to keep most of my life out of sight. The messy stuff – my doubts, my worries, my questions – went underground, unaddressed, My mother assumed oversight of all the early spaces in my life except a space deep inside me that she never chose to see.
What is curious to me still is how much I loved that big wooden bowl. It was a strategic weapon for my mother in her fight against mayhem and moodiness, but for me it became a one-of-a-kind safe space, sturdy and constant as a good friendship. Its familiarity was comforting when I came home from school to a quiet house. Its reliability was a reassurance when no one was around. It confined me, but it contained me as well. I always knew where to find my mittens on the way out the door.
Throughout her career as a clinical psychologist, Bonnie Chwast listened with great appreciation to the stories her patients told her. Now in retirement, she is finding time to tell some of her own.
At the Airport
By Madeleine Jacobson
My husband, Alan, and I were at the Atlanta airport waiting for our sandwiches at a restaurant when I was startled by an intrusive sound: a loud forceful woman's voice counting, “20, 21, 22, 23... 30.” I tried to place this in some meaningful context. I could not.
I bolted out of the restaurant. There, kneeling on the floor, was a woman dressed in a pink rhinestone-studded sweatshirt and a pink rhinestone-studded cap giving cardiac resuscitation to a tall, heavy man lying beside her. I assumed she was an EMT worker; it seemed odd that she was dressed in pink rhinestones, but I recalled that the next day was Halloween and chalked it up to that.
The man’s entire torso was exposed, revealing his plentiful, flabby abdomen, which rippled in response to the woman's life-saving activity. Another man crouched at the patient's head, tracking his pulse.
My own heart was pounding. I felt utterly pulled into the drama in front of me, simultaneously observer and silent participant. Alan, who had followed me out of the restaurant, could not bear to watch and walked away. I looked around for someone who might be the man's family. No one had stepped forward to claim him. He was alone.
Another man approached carrying a small black device he used for electrical cardiac stimulation. Two minutes had gone by, but it felt longer. Still no pulse. Now I could see the patient's pale, lifeless face. He looked very far away, almost peaceful in spite of the rigorous efforts being made by the woman in pink, who now was looking spent. Then she and the man at the patient's head traded places in a wordless exchange. The counting and thrusting continued. I heard one of the men say, "Still no pulse."
I found that I was annoyed with the dying man. He was not that old. Had he ignored his doctor's orders to take care of himself? Why hadn’t he lost some weight? Would it have made any difference in preventing his imminent death? How much control over our lives do we really have?
I am a cautious person; I follow the rules for healthy living, believing it will make a difference. Perhaps my dying man had thrown caution to the wind. I thought of my brother-in-law, who lies in the sun without sunscreen. He claims the sun's rays bounce off of him. He is a brilliant, successful man, yet he flirts with danger in this risky, foolish behavior.
Alan circled back and gently took my arm to lead me away. "Let's leave this poor man to die in private," he whispered. I felt glued in place by my need to see what would happen to him, but, reluctantly, I let Alan walk us slowly to our plane. Putting on my seat belt, I felt locked into myself. Stunned, I felt I had just had a personal loss. I had never seen anyone die.
Madeleine Jacobson is a retired psychoanalyst and psychotherapist using her gift of time for memoir writing and classes. She lives with her husband in Tarrytown, close to her daughter and granddaughter. Her passions include ballet, literature and time with family and friends.
By Lynne Reitman
There was a hole-in-the wall coffee shop on the southwest corner of 89th Street and Broadway. When the weather was nice, a large window opened onto Broadway and people could buy coffee, a soda or frank while standing on the street. There was also a door on 89th Street where you could walk in and order “to go” or sit at the long counter where there were a few stools. The place had no name, just the words “Coffee Shop” on the awning over the door.
I was renting a room in an apartment on 88th Street when I decided to go inside one day, sit at the counter and order a cup of coffee. A well-dressed middle-aged man walked in and sat down next to me, ordering eggs and potatoes with toast. The man behind the counter shouted “Potatoes! How can I make potatoes in this place! The grease would splatter all over the place! I would be cleaning all night!”
“Sorry,” the customer said quietly. “Can I have scrambled eggs?”
“Sure,” said the counterman. “I’ll fix you a decent plate.”
I was relieved. I just asked for coffee.
The counterman’s name was Benny. He was a tall man in his 60s, with large hairy ears and an enormous nose. His belly protruded under a white apron that was covered in grease stains. He wore a fishing cap on his head. His teeth were very small. He spit when he spoke and he smelled of herring.
I was curious to see what a decent plate was. He served the man scrambled eggs, grilled tomatoes and a grilled corn muffin on a white ceramic oval plate.
Over time I learned that the menu at this place wasn’t why people came. Benny’s toaster wasn’t big enough for bagels so if you wanted your bagel toasted, you got it grilled. Otherwise, there was white and rye toast. There were franks, grilled cheese and tuna fish. You could get coffee, soda or orange juice. That’s it.
The seat I liked best was at the end next to the wall. I could lean against the wall and watch everyone come in and out of the place while looking out on Broadway. I was there nearly every morning during my last five years of medical training. I thought of it as home during that time. Every day at 6 am, before running in Riverside Park, I would grab a quick cup of coffee. After I showered and dressed for the day, on my way to the hospital, I would stop by for another cup, a bagel, maybe eggs. I liked the simplicity of the menu and, of course, I liked Benny.
During my tenure at Benny’s, there was an anxious old actress who came in many times a day muttering to herself, the therapist who brought her tiny dog, a handsome though insecure lawyer who worked for a state legislator, an alcoholic writer who frequently asked me about his health issues, a feminist activist who railed against pornography, a journalist and the guy who owned Murray’s Sturgeon Shop down the block. He would occasionally drop off some lox that would be passed around to whomever was sitting on the stools, creating a festive moment.
Since we sat on stools, usually facing Benny, we didn’t look at one another much, and like driving in a car, this led to a more relaxed conversation that didn’t require filling in silences. Essentially we were all talking to Benny, who responded or absorbed or deflected whatever was said. We all felt a bond with Benny and with one another through him. Kind of like siblings.
In the 1980s, buildings were going up all over the Upper West Side and prewar rentals were going coop or condo. People who had lived in their apartments for decades were either cashing in or hunkering down to fight the good fight. No more homeless or prostitutes on Broadway. No more people who lived by their creative wits. No more students. Only people with money and expectations who were buying the apartments. Not surprisingly, a builder had a plan for the southwest corner of Broadway and 89th.
Benny had been working that corner for 30 years. He opened at 6 am and left at 3 pm, six days a week. He was getting tired. This was an opportunity for him, and the handsome lawyer who was a regular helped him cash in.
The last day at Benny’s was poignant, a sad and grand moment. The crowd all showed up and we had a good-bye celebration with Benny at the Chinese restaurant across the street. We all took souvenirs from the shop. I took one of the white oval ceramic plates. After the festivities, the lawyer and I had sex at his place on West End Avenue.
Many years later, I ran into Benny’s nephew, whom I knew from the coffee shop. He had just seen his uncle in Florida. Benny was spending his days by the pool, smoking cigars and playing cards happy, content, livin’ the life.
Lynne Reitman lives and works in Dobbs Ferry, where she walks, sees friends, takes yoga classes and writes.