The Best Book I Never Wrote

What’s nicer than helping other people feel that they can write? Encouraging them to, I mean? My chance to do this came the day an 85-year-old lady from my church called up to ask if I would teach a course to be called Writing from Personal Experience at the local Senior Center.

“We’ve all been talking,”  she said and we know you write for the paper each week.”  

They had all already decided it seemed that I would teach them once a month –  “on Mondays we thought, in the afternoon, since we  don’t like to go out at night.” I would prepare a lesson each time and assign a writing topic. Then,  at the next meeting, I would collect up all their pieces, take them home,  write comments on them and report on them at the next meeting at which time I would repeat the process…

“And oh!” she added cheerfully, “course we wouldn’t be paying you anything; that’s our policy here at the Center.

“What do you think?”

What did I think?! My palms had begun sweating at her first sentence. Why had I even picked up the phone? How could I POSSIBLY do this?  I’m too busy! What about all these kids in my kitchen every night!

Then I had one of those rare moments where I felt that someone way bigger than I am was nudging me forward.

I gave in to it. “OK,” I said meekly.

And so began a three-year odyssey that ended in a book whose title comes from a poem by Robert Frost  about the near-impossible task of raking leaves, something we all know a little bit about at this season for sure. 

We began each class saying something about the day itself and then we would start.

Once Bill Jeffery  read aloud a remembrance from childhood, his voice broke and he had to stop.

 “Let it out!” cried the lady across the table who had been in his First Grade Class some 70 years before.

“My wife says I’m emotionally unstable,” he joked before clearing his throat and going on.

But permission had been given: from that day on we were unashamed to show our feelings.

Looking back, I now realize there were tears at every session. We listened to one another’s memories and we cried. Because of this, class member Clarence, who wrote for most of his 96 years, called the classes my “séances.” (He once dropped me a note in his bold hand, “Lately I haven’t been well enough to get to too many of your séances…”)

Maybe he thought we were conjuring the dead in that basement room with the orange tulips painting the outside of our little window come spring.

Maybe he was right. 

Here is one of his poems now:

The Cat

 The Cat is a creature of infinite grace,

It spits on its forearms and sponges its face.

It licks and it sponges itself every place.

It licks and it sponges itself without haste,

It uses no soap no powders, no paste,

No cold-cream, no napkins, no towels to waste

Very efficient – but how does it taste?


Witty eh? But his best work – indeed everyone’s best work appeared when they looked back to the early decades of the last century – the meadow and the field, the bucket and soapstone sink – and to those long-gone ones who populated that world.

If you’d like to give this book to a friend download the same form I referred to in the last two posts. Again I’ll cover the shipping costs.

I’m smiling now just thinking of those stories: of ladylike Eleanor Matson taking off her coat in church – only to look down and see she had forgotten her skirt. Ah bless them all for having the courage to believe that harvest was anything but meager! The evidence is all right there.

This photo at the top is just me at a talk I gave on this and other books  for the Friends of the Abington Library, speaking of cool older people.

And underneath here is more about the book. Just click on it to make it easily readable.

2 thoughts on “The Best Book I Never Wrote

  1. Hi Terry, I once had a friend, I/we called him “Old Man Pete”. Although he spent only the last eight years of his life associating with my family, the mark and void that he left are both a constant source of fond remembrance and lonely sorrow. The only difference between us was that he was born 50 years before me. We were close, not like father figure / son, but close friends. I never expected to find such an unusual relationship in my life but there it was. His stories of WWII (D-Day invasion, trekked all through Europe, and then finally wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, (a bullet grazed him in the butt while he was relieving himself in the woods), were a source of accurate first person history and his perspective brought this history alive. I frequently miss him. He never got to see the turn of this last century. The last time I saw him alive he told me that he loved me (not at all like him to say such a thing). I should have said something, but I simply could not. This I regret, but the interaction that I had with this “senior” has (like the song says), changed me for good. Merry Christmas, CJH

    1. What a remarkable person he must have been! Men were not raised to say I love you . No one was. My family of origin was very reticent about expressing unabashed love. I knew they loved me because they listened to me so thoroughly . I guess that’s enough but I was glad to break through and be able to say I love you as an adult. Chris it sounds to me as though Pete has remained behind and is with you still. Look for stronger signs of him in the mirror in 20 years! Thinking of you there in the Cap City region (that’s right isn’t it? I am picturing you there anyway…)

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