Seniors stand up for storytelling
By J. Chambless
Members of the Living History Story Telling Club at the Kennett Area Senior Center do warmup exercises for their storytelling session. In the circle, clockwise from lower left, are Mary Sinton, Jan Michener, Phyllis Lay, Karl Leck, Keith Schneider, Gary Smith and Martha Taylor. (Photo by Chris Barber)
Members of an experience-sharing group at the Kennett Area Senior Center are standing up against the isolation which many have attributed to the evolution of digital communication in recent years.
The Living History Story Telling Club meets every week, under the guidance of facilitator Jan Michener. The group members talk, face-to-face, about experiences that affect their lives and how they have reacted to them. On any given week, five or six of them get together, sit in a circle and take turns recounting events that they have lived through.
“Everyone has a story. Sharing their story validates them as individuals,” Michener said recently.
The group began in 2003 at the senior center as a 10-week program of personal storytelling. But as Michener recalled it, “The last day came and [late member] Gertrude Leck said, ‘Well what are we going to do next week?’ And so we’ve been going ever since.”
They meet each week with the goal of sharing a supportive and non-judgmental atmosphere. In addition to leading this group, Michener has initiated a number of other support and arts incentives. An actor and teacher, she is the founder and executive director of AHHAH (Arts Holding Hands and Hearts) as well, which serves youth and families through literacy and arts in Chester County.
Unlike traditional oral history projects which record and store the voices of individuals for posterity, Living History Story Telling centers on supporting its members and giving voice to their opinions in the present. There are no recordings kept.
When questioned about their feelings for the club, the members uniformly said they are pleased to attend their weekly meeting and would miss them if they stopped. “There’s 400 years of experience here,” said group member and Gertrude's son, Karl Leck, 74.
“It’s a reinforcement of ourselves and our strength,” said Martha Taylor, 77. She added that she keeps coming back because it’s a contrast with what she sees around her -- people constantly on their cellphones.
The weekly class begins under Michener’s guidance, with stretching and warming up. As a prelude to addressing the topics of the day, the members are asked to tell briefly what has happened over the past weekend. The responses are generally commonplace, but in the telling, they remind others of similar events in their own lives, which they become eager to share.
Later, Michener presents a topic they can draw on from their own lives, making sure that each member has a say. Recent topics have been “your first job,” “something you fear” and “a surprise that you would like.”
Sometimes, members feel they don’t have much to say, but as the conversations move around the room, the earlier speakers are suddenly prompted to contribute. Sometimes, however, the experiences that are shared are amazingly unexpected.
Carmela Contro, 80, is eager to tell friends that she grew up in South Philadelphia with the 1950s dreamboat singers Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and Fabian. She confessed that she once sneaked out of home to dance on “American Bandstand,” even though her Catholic school frowned on it.
Gary Smith, 71, told a story of rushing into an elevator going down in order to catch someone who was descending the nearby steps. Mary Sinton, 80, described an experience with her family in Ireland. One of the occupants of the thatched-roof house was pregnant and had been sitting around lazily for months. One day the roof caught fire. Everyone rushed out excitedly, and that was just the exercise the pregnant woman needed. She went into labor the next day, Sinton said.
Presented with the question of what kind of surprise they would be happy to have, quite a few of the members mentioned winning the lottery, or in some way receiving a large sum of money.
Smith said he wanted to encourage community revitalization and the establishment of an arts and performance center in Kennett Square, which got support from Michener. She encouraged him to go for the possibility by reminding him of similar projects in other towns that were achieved by grants.
Phyllis Lay, 77, said she would like to share a windfall with members of her family to get higher quality education. In her years, she said, she has become aware of the limitations a lack of education places on people, and she wants to help others overcome it.
Keith Schneider, 75, said he often thinks about having a Publisher’s Clearing House fortune arrive at his door. But in a related idea, he said he fears facing the chores that will eventually be involved in downsizing his living quarters and moving into a smaller dwelling. “Perhaps I need a fairy godmother,” he said.
Leck said his desired surprise would be having the opportunity to drive a classic Ferrari. This prompted suggestions from the other members on where and how he could accomplish that.
The average age of the members is in the mid-70s, although several are in their 80s. Several of them mentioned their fears of the chronic conditions brought on by age, including becoming a burden to their families, the challenges of affording the costs of living, and the decreasing number of friends to relate to.
As Smith said, “The older you get, the fewer people there are to feel close to.”
What has the storytelling experience meant to the members?
Smith said it has enhanced his tolerance – in fact, embracing – of the lives and views of others. He added that, in a group that includes many women, he has grown in his appreciation of women’s opinions and outlooks on life.
Leck said that in hearing the stories of other people, he has become aware of memories that he would not otherwise have been in touch with. He also said that having a facilitator for the group was the catalyst in having a successful experience. “It’s not as much fun without the facilitator. And fun feels good,” Leck said.
As the end of the meeting approached, a question arose about what the future held. Would there be a completion date? Michener said it would go on with no end in sight.
“We have some great stories,” she said.