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Welcome!

Thank you for visiting our Life Story Library page. Our club meets once a week to share stories. Many are funny, some are painful, all are true. We come from all walks of life, from coast to coast. This past year, we have built trust, care and community together. And in that community, there is magic. We each recorded a story in April 2024 to share with our loved ones in the wider world, and we hope you enjoy!

HOME BIRTHS: NONA & ME

ELIZABETH P.

My name is Elizabeth P. and I’m working on a memoir right now about driving a cab in the 1970s, but this story takes place after that.

“So you’re having your baby at home? What are you, crazy? You’re 43!”

This was my mother talking to me when I was pregnant with my third child. And to quiet her, I just said to her, “And where were you born? And how old was Nona when she had you?”

And my mother had to say, “Well, at home on the farm in Plymouth, Massachusetts, at age 43.”

So that kind of shut her up. But in fact, my Nona, my Italian grandmother, had all of her ten kids at home. And when I got pregnant with my third child, I wanted to have a home birth. And I knew that I needed to call upon my Nona to give me – well, she had died at age 94, but I wanted to call upon her memory to give me the emotional and spiritual support that I needed.

So my first baby was born in a large urban hospital in 1985. I had wanted only the most nurturing, warmest environment for him. And I went to a feminist, Yale-educated female doctor, and I had a birth plan. I told her I wanted no anesthesia, no medicine to, you know, induce the labor. I wanted my husband to be present in the room, and I wanted breastfeeding only. And she said to me, “Well, you know, don’t pay too much attention to these birth plans, because things don’t always go as planned.” And they didn’t.

So when I was 32 weeks pregnant, I told this doctor that I trusted, that I felt that the baby’s head was under my diaphragm instead of down in my pelvis, where it should be at that point. And she just scoffed at it and said, “Oh, no, that’s his, you know…” She felt around. She said, “That’s his tight little butt.” So, you know, what do I know? So I went with that.

Well, two weeks after the due date and at least 15 hours into my labor and contractions, they finally did an ultrasound and found out that the baby was, in fact, breech, which means head up, butt down. So they had to do an immediate emergency Cesarean section, which meant at the time, my husband could not be present in the room. I was out cold with anesthesia. I wasn’t even given a local anesthesia. And then when the baby was born, they gave the baby sugar water because I was really out of it. I wasn’t quite totally together yet. So, everything that I had planned on did not happen. I swore it would be different next time.

So when I had my second baby, I changed doctors. I went to a doctor who was skilled in VBAC, which stands for vaginal birth after cesarean. And that was a rarity. I think it still is, actually. And, you know, I wanted to regain control of the delivery and avoid the complications that I had with the C-section, which were postpartum depression and some nerve damage and longer recovery time. So I wanted to avoid all that.

And so when I had the second baby, I did have a VBAC, vaginal birth after Cesarean, and it was a much more fulfilling experience. But the doctor had this technique of pushing down hard on my stomach every time I pushed. So by the end of the labor, I felt like I was a used tube of toothpaste. You know, I just was squished so much.

So by my third delivery, I wanted a non-interventionist, nurturing, secure environment that would restore my power, where I had control over what was happening to me and what was happening to the baby coming out of my body.

So I thought of Nona in the winter of 1918, when she gave birth to my mother in the farmhouse out in North Plymouth, Massachusetts. She had her 15-year-old daughter, my aunt Elizabeth, who’s my namesake, was present to help, was the assistant. And my Nona gave birth. And she’s a very strong woman. And after she had my mother, she gave orders. The story, the family story, is that she gave orders from her bed for my aunt to take the sheets, strip the bed, and take the sheets across the street to the cranberry bog that was frozen, and break the – this is in February – break the ice, and soak the sheets in the ice water so they wouldn’t stain. So that’s what she had to do. So it was very simple, you know, to have a home birth back then.

It was way more complicated now, because mine was considered a geriatric pregnancy. I was 43, and it was considered geriatric, and now it’s considered advanced maternal age. But then that’s what they called it: geriatric. And anybody over the age of 35 was considered geriatric. And the risks for geriatric pregnancy were hypertension, diabetes, miscarriage, and the fact that I already had a C-section, my uterus was scarred, so uterine rupture was another supposed risk.

My sister, who’s married to a doctor, said, “Go to a hospital, let them take the precautions that they need.” And my friends, who meant well, would tell me horror stories about home births and pregnancies that went awry. But I was determined that I would not look at this as a pathological pregnancy. And I would take safeguards to protect myself and my child, and I would try to keep a positive attitude about this, and I would channel my Nona.

Now, Nona was born in northern Italy, and she had no schooling after grade school. And my mother used to brag, she raised ten children without any psychology, meaning, she had no book learning at all. And in 1902, she went across the ocean with three children to Boston to be with her husband, my Nono. And they lived in North Plymouth in a community of Italian immigrants, all from the same area in Italy. And those in that community would come to my grandmother for advice, and she was respected as a midwife. She delivered a lot of babies in that community, in their own homes. So I didn’t have quite the same approval from my peers!

So I devised a strategy where I would have my own community, my own support group that would help me through this. I found other women who had previous caesareans who wanted to have a VBAC, and we would have monthly meetings, and we would have midwives come and talk to us. And we gained a lot of information. And I hired, I found a midwife who would deliver at home, and she had doctor, a physician, back up at a local hospital in the Bronx. I hired a doula to kind of help me through it and be there during the labor, the delivery, and immediately afterwards. And I took a course in what materials were needed to have a home birth and what exercises to do and how to keep the contractions strong by doing a lot of walking during the labor.

And to the naysayers, I just said, “Look, my grandmother had ten children in her own home. I should be able to do it once.”

So months later, in the throes of labor, as I was lying in my bed at home, I looked across the bedroom to my Nona’s amethyst rosary beads that were hanging on the mirror by the dresser. And I conjured her up, you know, conjured her strength. And I gave birth to my nine-pound son.

And when my oldest child yelled out the window to the neighborhood kids, “It’s a boy!” it was like the white smoke coming out of the chimney that tells there’s a new pope, that they’ve elected a new pope. And I can’t say that I did it alone. I had my husband and my doula, my midwife and my sister, who had said, “No, have it in the hospital.” Her daughter was the babysitter for my kids downstairs while I was in labor. And so I didn’t do it alone. And, of course, I had the midwife, but I can say I did it under my own efforts without any medicinal, physical, or surgical intervention.

And like my grandmother before me, I did it with the support and love of family and friends at home, in my own environment with an old-fashioned support system. So sometimes in order to move forward, it’s necessary to go back to your roots. That’s my story.

My friends would tell me horror stories about home births that went awry.

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BUILDING MY BODY

JOSIE C.

Hello, everyone. My name is Josie C. I use my maiden name, because when I got married I told my husband, “Your last name is boring, and my last name is interesting.”

I’d like to talk today about being a woman ahead of my time in terms of body awareness, and learning to love the body that God gave me. And so I’d like to start with the fact that from as young as I can remember, I’ve been muscular. And I told everyone that my grandfather, even though I didn’t really know him very well, my mother’s father, he would always encourage me and say, “Come here, let me see those muscles. Come on. Hold on to me.” You know, that was about our only interaction, but it was very sweet to me, and unbeknownst to him, it was very encouraging.

I had already been teased a lot concerning a different part of my body, which was my nose. And while everybody else had those pretty little straight noses, mine had the bump, the Arab bump, which I absolutely hated. And my eldest sister, actually, she decided that she was going to have hers shaved down. We both had the similar bump.

So moving right along, I started to realize from young that I was strong, and I was really enjoying athletics at the same time. So when I got into grammar school, a coach, my gym teacher, said, “You know, you’re pretty fast. Come on, come try out for the track team.” So I tried out for track, and he was right! I was very fast and won a lot of medals.

And after that, my mom on Saturdays was like, “You girls can’t just sit around. You got to do something. Either you go play tennis, go to the Y. You – you’re going to start taking dance lessons.” So she put me in a dance class, and the dance instructor also was teaching gymnastics at the end of the dance lessons. And I was like, “Wow, I like this. Wow, I really like this!” And when it was time to get ready for the recital, she pulled me aside out of the twelve girls and she said, “Josie, I’m teaching you the solo. You’re going to do the gymnastics and dance solo.” And I thought quietly to myself, “Ooh, I guess I’m good at this, too!”

It’s not that I was a bad student, I was a good student also. But I was kind of falling in love with sports. Around that time Kathy Rigby was a gymnast on TV, and she was an Olympian, and I was trying to emulate everything she did. But she was petite, she was a teeny weenie. And as I started to come up into adolescence and, you know, the body starts developing, my behind was, like, very prosperous, let’s call it that way. It was prosperous. Smaller than my other sister, but, mind you, prosperous.

And so, you know, at that age, you start to get a little weird, but again, in high school, I had a gym teacher, Miss Mayo. And thank God for other women who see something in you and don’t shame your body! She just was not going there: “Josie, come on, let’s go. All right, come on, we got a gymnastics team. I see you doing cartwheels and everything all through gym class. Let’s get you going.” And all through, I kept getting better and better in high school until I got to my senior year. And again, I was the city champ on balance beam. And I was the overall city champ in the Catholic School League.

So, you know, I thought I was all that and a bag of chips, big booty and all, having to yank my leotard out of my backside all the time after every tumbling pass. I was yanking that thing out. It was just so uncomfortable. When I got to college, the girls were putting Stick ‘Em. Have any of you ever heard of Stick ‘Em? What it is, it’s like the roll glue, and you roll it on your boom boom or any place where you don’t want the fabric to come off, and then you put the leotard on top of it, and it holds pretty well. I never tried it because I just figured with my voluptuous boom boom, it wasn’t gonna happen.

But, the wonderful thing in our family is, all my aunts were very curvaceous. My mom had nine, it’s either eight or nine sisters, I don’t remember now, but all of them had beautiful bodies, and they didn’t shame each other about their curves. My sisters, on the other hand, yeah, they could be a bit mean. I had one sister who was very, very prosperous in the rear end department, and they were brutal with her. So sports kind of exempted me from that level of cruelty, because they’d see how tight I was everywhere else.

Let’s jump forward to college. I was very excited about being on a college gymnastics team, because in my head, I was still going to make it to the Olympics. By this point, Debbie Thomas had come on the scene, and she was one of the first Black gymnasts that I had ever seen. And there were even more of the Asian women, it was starting to get more integrated culturally, which was great, because then you could see different body types. You know, the traditional Caucasian body tended to be no boom boom, very slender legs, petite in the breast area. Honest to goodness, they weren’t really women’s bodies. By the time you got to college, you should at least have some breasts, you know what I’m saying? But because the sport was so restricted in its thought pattern that you had to be small in order to flip faster… There is some physics to it, don’t get me wrong, but they weren’t taking into account that formula of strength.

So, in any event, I got to college and was on the team. The coach was paying no attention to me because I was probably in the half middle, maybe I was in what they would call the second squad, and I was towards the upper part, but I was totally unmotivated because college was hard academically. After my first trimester, I had a 2.2! Oh, no, something’s got to give here!

By the end of that first semester, there was a junior varsity competition, because I didn’t make the varsity team, and I didn’t see my name on the list. And so I stood right there, and I just started crying, couldn’t hold it in. I don’t know what I thought. I wasn’t body shaming myself, but I could see that there was a difference. And so the coach came up, and she just said to me, “You know, Josie, I haven’t seen you practice a really solid routine since you’ve been here. That’s why your name’s not up there. And so if you could put something together, I’ll put you in.”

Now, mind you, my routines were more like the high school routines. I’d stepped up to a new level of grading and scoring that I really didn’t understand. But I wiped my tears, and I said, “Well, to hell with it. If I’m going out, I’m going to go out with a good routine.” And so I did the routine that I won me the Catholic School Championship, and I scored the highest I had ever scored! And so, to me, that was a win. I got third place, and so that was like another woo-hoo!

I was proud of myself, you know? And I was like, “OK girl, you’re bigger than these girls. But you know what, you’re here for physical education. You’re gonna have to make a switch.” And so the coach, Terry, she started to say, “All right, we’re gonna start having morning and afternoon workouts.” And that’s when I said, “Ixnay, no, I’m done.”

So that was before January. And, you know, we were all starting to get ready for winter break. And I just figured, “Let me get back in the gym.” I was in the gym when I was younger, lifting weights from when I was ten. So I started going in there, and one of my, he wasn’t my classmate, he was above me, his name was Mike Boyle, and he was one of the trainers for any of the athletic teams. So the trainers are the guys that if athletes get hurt, they’re the first ones out on the field to help assess the injury. They know their body really well. He was very smart, and everybody admired Mike Boyle because he really knew his stuff. And he would encourage me sometimes with my classwork. But that day in the gym, he said to me, “You know, Josie, it’s not that you’re not right for gymnastics,” he says, “but with your level of muscularity, I got to tell you, you should try bodybuilding.”

And I looked at him like he had five heads. I already got the hook nose, and the booty, and guys are not particularly loving me up here because there’s a lot of white guys up here. And the Black guys, I’m sorry, are just too grabby, ready to, like, rip my clothes off type stuff. I wasn’t feeling either side of it. So I was like, “Are you serious?”

He goes, “Look, just give it a try.” And I said, “All right.” Six weeks, eight weeks, whatever was a time between when we were going down to Florida, we all wanted to look cute in our bathing suits. So I tried it. And, I already had an idea of what to do from being a phys ed student. And I was kind of awed at how quickly my body changed, but even more than that, how muscular I was and how I kind of liked it, you know?

And so I graduated from college. Mike was encouraging me to enter a contest. I got out of college, started teaching high school and not really working out. And so, you know, Mrs. Prosperous In The Back End started showing up again. So I was like, “Oh, we got to keep this body in order here.” I joined the gym, and again, someone said to me, “Hey, they’re having a club show. You should try it.”

And again, I’m thinking, when I looked at the bathing suit that you had to wear, it was skimpier than my gymnastics uniform. I mean, you know, excuse me, but you’d have to, like, literally give yourself a total you-know-what down there so that nothing would show. So I got my girlfriend. I said, “If you do it, I’ll do it.”

And so we both entered, and I won. I won the whole show. And, there’s nothing like some encouragement, and people admiring you a bit. And even my students, my girls in high school, it was good for me to get hold of this. Loving yourself where you’re at with your body, whether,you have a big backside or you’re skinny like a pole, just loving you and taking care of you. And by the time I became a health and phys ed teacher, I was able to pass that on to them because these girls were body shaming themselves. “Oh, Miss J., I want to look like you. I want to look like you.” It’s like, “No, no.”

And in the health class, I would bring in little figurines, a giraffe, a tiger, an elephant, all different animals. And I said, “You don’t see the giraffe saying that he wants to be an elephant or the alligator saying he wants to be a tiger, because we’ve all been created differently. And so what they do is they use – now, mind you, animals do it innately, right? – but they use their bodies to not only live and function, but to excel in life.” And so, little by little, I started doing things with them. We started a dance club, and I didn’t care whether you could dance or not. Let’s go! Get in here! Gymnastics club. Girls with big booties like mine. “Come on, girl. Just yank that thing out your butt, actually.” And I started telling them that we could start wearing shorts for our competition.

And our competitions weren’t so formal. It wasn’t the actual organized league. In any event, I stayed there for a while, and because my bodybuilding career was starting to take off, and little by little, I started to move up. It was my first year competing. I was able to go to the nationals, which is when somebody sends one, two, or three people from their state who can qualify to go and compete against all the other women from these states in that same particular weight class. And I was becoming so appalled at the fact that I was a heavyweight, because I thought heavyweight meant that I was obese. But Mike Boyle, again, from school, he did my body fat for me, and he started teaching me some things that I had yet to learn because I was only a sophomore and he was a senior.

And so he was explaining to me the dynamics of that 150 pounds for each woman looks different based on the makeup of her body. So Christine could be 150, Jeanette could be 150, you could be 150. All of us could be 150 pounds, and we’ll look totally different, but we’ll all be the same weight. And then he did, way back before doing body fat analysis, regular people were doing it. Athletes were always assessing their body fat. He did mine. I was over the moon with excitement, because what I realized is that out of the 150 pounds, 128 of it was muscle and bone, and only the rest, what, 22 pounds was fat, which is really not bad when you look at it by proportions in terms of fractions. So I started to really get it.

And from that, I was able to help the other women also see the breakdown of their body. And, like me, the light would go on for them, and they’re like, “Wow, I thought I had to lose, like, 50 pounds, but that’s not possible.” Like, “Yeah, why don’t we just start trying to be the best and healthiest version of ourselves that we can be?”

And so I went from a young girl who was a little insecure about the nose and the body, and by the way I have not had a nose job or anything like that, I refuse to, because just like with the rest of my body, I am so in love with the culture and the way God created me. And if you don’t like my bump, then you better just go look somewhere else. I’m like, “Sorry, I was born this way, baby. And that’s that. And I love me. So best of luck to you.”

And that’s my story of learning how to love these muscles and learning to love this body, hook nose, muscles, epilepsy and all. That’s it.

My behind was very prosperous, let's call it like that.

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HITCHHIKING WITH JESUS

CHRISTINE E.

I’m Christine, and my story is from when I was 21 years old. I had a very free-spirited year. When I was 21, I was working at a vegetarian restaurant that was collectively run. We didn’t have a boss. We had meetings on Sunday afternoons. And so it really fed creativity, because you could try things, and it was a really family kind of vibe. We really liked each other.

And that summer, I went to a performance. Probably someone I knew told me about it. And I went to this dance performance called contact improv dance, and was blown away. It was so beautiful. And then I took the class. Now, contact improv is this kind of dance where it’s a duet. Generally, two people move together and some part of your bodies’ touch, and then you follow that point of contact and you flow around, and it’s really beautiful. You can see it on YouTube, I think there’s dances on YouTube with it. And so I took the class and really loved it. And in one of the last classes, we’re all kind of improv dancing, not doing contact improv. And I danced with this guy, Charlie, Charlie someone, I don’t remember his last name, who was a professor of dance at the university. And we’re dancing, and he said to me, “How long have you been dancing?” And I said, “This is my first class.” That was super flattering, because he was a dance professor! And then I went on later to be invited by the teacher to be in her performance troupe.

But that’s not the story I’m telling. The story I’m telling is that then in the fall – that was in the summer – and then in the fall, someone had told me about an apple picking job with a crew of young people in New Hampshire, and I got hired for it. And so I was traveling. I had committed to apple picking, and a guy from the dance class asked me if he could come along. So we hitchhiked from Madison, Wisconsin, to Londonderry, New Hampshire, through Canada, to get to the apple orchard. And when we’re on the side of the road hitchhiking on the highways or the on ramps, probably, we did some contact improv dance, and we ended up having a bit of an affair. And there were some interesting rides when were hitchhiking.

Once this man in a big, I want to say, Lincoln Continental pulled over. He was very intense, and he wasn’t talking to us very much, he just was looking forward. And as we’re putting our backpacks into his trunk, I said to Bryn, who I was hitchhiking with, I said, “I don’t know if I feel safe with this guy.” Bryn was like, “Oh, come on. We need this ride.” He was totally dismissing my feelings, but I was really nervous about this guy.

So I walked up to the car, the driver’s side window, and I leaned in, and I said to the guy, “I’m not sure I feel safe with you.” And he went, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve just been stressed out thinking about my problems and my business. No, no.”And his face totally opened up, and I went, “Ok!” We put our stuff in. We got in the car and got the ride, and it was fine.

And then we got a ride from a guy who had just finished minister school. I was sitting in the front seat, Bryn was in the back. And he asked me lots of questions about what I believe spiritually. I couldn’t tell you what I answered, but I had answers. I said, “I think this and I think that.” And we talked for a very long time.

And at the end of it, he said, “I’m very impressed with you, because I’ve never asked and had a non-Christian have any answers for these questions, but you had answers to all of them. But here’s what it comes down to: If I’m right and you’re wrong, you’re going to hell.” And it seems so absurd that I burst out laughing!

And then later, when we were at a rest stop and away from the guy, Bryn said to me, “Oh my God, you sounded like the devil when you laughed. You sounded so terrible.” And I was like, “You know!”

And then we – I’m skipping ahead – we had a bit of a fling, but then he ended up not getting a job at the apple orchard. And then when I got back to Madison, Wisconsin, where I lived, he didn’t really want to be involved with me, and I was slightly heartbroken, but we were still friends. And he came over to see me one time, and he had gotten romantically involved with this beautiful woman. We were all young. A beautiful young woman with very dark, wavy, long hair and really striking. Her eyes were either blue or green, but they were very striking. You don’t see those light eyes with that dark hair so often, kind of olive skin. And she was really kind of demure and feminine and quiet. And he had gotten involved with her. And he said to me, “She’s like the moon, dark and mysterious.” He said, “You’re like the sun, to brighten my eyes.”

And then some weeks later, he came to visit me again, and we made out because I really liked him. I was very attracted to him. We made out, and he said to me, “When you and I are sexual, it’s like a dance. When I made love to her, she just laid there like a log.”

Then within a year later, I had moved away. And he wrote me a letter, and he said, ‘You gave me permission for parts of myself that no one else ever thought to.’ And I just thought that was a wonderful compliment. So that’s my story today.

(Here’s a link to Bryn sharing a story on This American Life:  https://www.thisamericanlife.org/81/guns/act-three-2)

We got a ride from a guy who had just finished minister school.

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THE DRAFT

MARK S.

My name is Mark and I will try to share a recollection of a long ago time in my life, which hopefully some people will find interesting. To go back: most of my life has been, for the most part, very sheltered. I’ve been very fortunate. I was afforded a lot of great opportunities. I had a loving family. And yet, as my life bounced on, there were some elements or some incidents that really, for the most part, were really out of my comfort zone. And those are the two I’d like to share.

One, I always went between public school and then I went to a very good private school in New York, then to a private university. And it was at this private university that really delineated what I felt were uncomfortable situations.

One was in the late sixties, and it was just a horrible time in this country. If you think the country is divided now, you should have seen it during the Vietnam War, when Dr. King got killed, when it was just one thing after another after another. And the universities were just chaotic at that point. And we saw it. And where I was, I mean, who could ever imagine when I walked out in the morning to class that I’d see ten or twelve guys out there with automatic rifles? And they weren’t police! We had Black Panthers, we had Angela Davis on the campus, we had Marcuse on the campus. I mean, it was just crazy. I said, “What’s going to happen?”

They said, “First of all, you have to sign up for the draft.”

I said, “What do you mean I have to sign up for the draft?”

They said, “It’s Vietnam. We’re running out of people. You need to sign up for the draft.”

I said, “That’s impossible. I can’t go in the army.”

I sign up, train for it, but sure enough, they went by birthdays that year, that first year, and they said they were going to draft up to 175. So of course I got 125.

I got home, I say to my father, “What are we going to do? I can’t go in the army, I mean, you know.”

He said, “We’ll figure it out.” And he said, “I’ll call, make a phone call with a friend, and we’ll try to get you into a reserve unit. For anyone who doesn’t know, you do six months active duty, then six years in the reserves.”

So I said, “Well, if that’s our only alternative, so be it.”

So my father somehow managed to find an opening, and it was a New York unit. And I went, and before you know it, I get called up for active duty, for the six months.

And I said to myself – I’m sitting in the car with my father, he had driven me down to Fort Dix – and I said to him, “You know what? I’m really angry at you. How could you let this happen to me after all these years?” And it was a difficult time in my family. My mother had just died.

And my father said, “What do you mean, how can I let this happen?”

I said, “How can you let this happen? We have 1700 students at the university. Three of us are going into the army. That’s impossible. I can’t be one of those three!” Needless to say, I was one of those three.

And my father, as he was sitting in the car, we said goodbye to each other. He said, “I’m really sorry I let you down.”

That was it for me. I said, “You didn’t let me down. It was just circumstances that let me down. How can we still be at war after all this time? How can Vietnam not be resolved?” Needless to say, it wasn’t.

So I go in, I report to Fort Dix, and it was a very unusual unit. I was with 90 young guys from Alabama, all National Guard, all crazy guys, and there were 90 guys from Newark, New Jersey, all inner city kids who were really, who knew where they would end up. They knew, they were hoping to go to Europe to get stationed, but they accepted the fact that the guys from Alabama were in the National Guard, they were only going in for six months.

So one thing led to another. It was an eye-opening experience for me, being in the army. I didn’t realize the amount of tension there was: Black, white, Alabama, Newark. We ended up having a football game one day, Newark against Alabama. So they said, “Well, what team are you going to play for?” I played for Newark, not playing for Alabama. And the bottom line is we went at each other for like two hours playing football. A couple of guys got hurt. But I said to myself, “My God, this is what t these guys from Newark have to go through every day. Drill sergeants. Just impossible.”

And it was the first time -I played, like I said, sports my whole life. So Black, white was never an issue to me. But what was an issue was to see how these guys from Alabama, they didn’t treat, they were just bad guys in the sense of they just had so little compassion for what was going on. There were maybe out of the 90 guys from Alabama, 15 were from Auburn University. And you know what? I think they understood what was going on. They didn’t want to be there any more than I did or anyone else.

So I think what I did learn was that all the headlines you see in the news, what’s going on now, it’s nothing compared to experiencing it first-hand. In my case, it was for a short period of time. I was lucky, you know, we didn’t go to Vietnam. I spent out my last five years in the reserves, and I got to meet a lot of really pretty decent guys. And, the time went relatively smoothly, and I realized that the best way to experience, if you want to experience prejudice, go out and experience it. Don’t read about it, don’t watch a movie about it, just experience it, however you have to do it. And I think what I found out more so than anything else, was in college there was just too much in the way of book learning, not enough practical learning. And that for me was a big game-changer, those four or five years of my life. And then I sort of reverted back to my previous existence, which wasn’t so bad either. So that’s it for me.

I said, "That's impossible. I can't go in the army."

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A HAPPY DIVORCE

SHELLEY R.

My name is Shelly. I would like to share my story, which is about divorce.

In 1996, I was going into my 10th year of marriage, and it was not going that great. Well, actually, in 1996, my husband and I had been separated for five years. After we separated, he mentioned that he did want a divorce. But the years went by, and I was complacent, I have to admit. We lived in the same neighborhood. Aside from us being apart, life went on as usual. He took care of my daughter in the evening while I was at work, and we were still friends. So maybe that’s why I let it, you know, the marriage go on for all those years. But I did decide that I wanted a divorce. I wanted to be free to date, if that was my choice.

I read the Penny Saver at that time every week, and they had an ad in there about a divorce kit for $99, and I decided to go for it. I had spoken to my friend’s lawyer, but she charged a lot of money. It was just out of my reach. And I have to say that the kit did not have all the information I needed. Some information was wrong. I had to do a lot of my own research. A lot of papers needed to be notarized. And every time I went to the bank, the notary was not there. So little annoyances like that, you know.

I kept going, and one funny moment was when my friend served my husband, Ralph, with the papers. We went to his house, and he knew we were coming, and he answered the door. She handed him the papers, and we were all smiling. It was kind of surreal. But I’m glad that it was not, that were not enemies.

I submitted my divorce, I think it was late July, early August. I had everything together. I had gone through the formula for child support. I was very meticulous. And at one point, I even had to buy a book, because I just did not have the information I needed. So I submitted my papers, and the judge who was over the case, he denied my divorce; he was concerned about the child support amount. I had used the state formula, so it was correct. And I had to really question this. It was not an exorbitant amount. It was within his income to do this.

I had to say to myself, right or wrong, I said to myself, “Wow, these guys really look out for each other.” And so I had to let that go. But I remember I was disappointed, and I mentioned it to a friend. I was about to go on vacation, and I told her that I would take care of things when I got back, and she was pretty upset with me. I’m not quite sure what she expected. But I was not going to sit at home and wring my hands, especially since I had made these arrangements. So we did go on vacation. It was wonderful. And I came back and started composing the letter to the judge.

And I have to also say at this point, there were a few things that I was ignorant about. I was in my 10th year of marriage, and I knew that if you were married ten years, you could collect your ex’s pension. In my ignorance, I did not know that also meant Social Security. My ex, Ralph, he didn’t have a pension through his job, so the timing was not important to me. I resubmitted the papers. I think I also had help from the judge’s clerk. And I wrote a very good letter explaining how I arrived at the child support figure, and the judge approved a divorce. And the delay was actually a blessing for me. As it turns out, I was divorced a few days after my 10th wedding anniversary, I would say about three to six days. And Social Security is included in that ten-year deal. And that was very important to me.

Down the road, I went into my last career at a hotel. I was in my fifties, and it was a great job. I mean, the place itself was toxic, but my position there was very good, and I worked there. I wanted to really work well into my sixties, but it became very difficult work conditions, and you would not associate a luxury hotel with bad working conditions, but it happens all the time. So I really wanted out, and I was able to get out. I used my ex-husband Ralph’s pension to retire at the age of 64, because I could not stand it another minute. So that denial really worked in my favor in a big way, and it worked out quite well.

So when we think at the time, we may think, “Oh, gosh, this is a disaster, what’s going to happen?” But it may turn out very well, and it did for me. So that is my story of a happy divorce. And I’m also happy to say that Ralph and I, we stayed friends. He always took great care with our daughter, and he died in 2009. And I miss him very much.

She handed him the papers, and we were all smiling.

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IT’S A 9/11 DAY

MARY ANNE H.

My name is Mary Anne. I live in San Francisco, but my heart is in New York. And it’s so much fun being here because all of you are exactly what I always expect of a New Yorker. And I got a little trouble trying to figure out what I would do because I haven’t been here very long, so I decided that I would share where I was on 9/11, only because I couldn’t think of a lot of things, I just wasn’t being very creative.

So on that fateful day, I was working at New York Presbyterian Hospital, which most of you probably know is at 168th Street and Fort Washington Avenue, because of all the things you guys keep saying, I think you’re in those neighborhoods of wonderful Washington Heights.

I lived in Rockland County with my three kids. And every morning, I got up and got myself ready and drove into New York. You know, Rockland county is only about 18 miles into the city, but it takes a long time to get over the George Washington Bridge. So I always left about an hour early.

So I did get up that morning, got myself ready, and drove in down the Palisades, did my usual across the George Washington, paying my toll, and I definitely always looked down the Hudson as I go across the bridge. And as we all know, that was one gorgeous day! And as most people usually say when it’s so beautiful out, probably today it looked like that: “It’s a 9/11 day.” You could almost see to the tip of Manhattan.

So I drove in, and Columbia is right off the first exit. I drove to the parking lot, I parked further away than the regular parking lot, walked up and went into my office, which was on the first floor of the building on Fort Washington Avenue.

I went in and started chatting with people, but all of a sudden, everyone was kind of in a dither because the news was coming across that someone had crashed, a plane had crashed into the Trade Center. And of course, everyone was shocked. So we ran, a lot of us, to that overpass, as many of you probably know, that crosses Fort Washington Avenue. There’s a big kind of walkway that is up there, and you can could, on this particular day, see pretty much down the city to see if we could see anything. There was some smoke, not a lot.

But anyway, we got back to our offices. I, at that point, was doing a computer job up in the operating room. I am a nurse, but I was hired to install computer software in the operating room, so my base was in the OR. So we all got called to our places.

I went up to the operating room, and of course, the word was: “Let’s prepare for patients.” So we began – the nurses, the doctors, everything was halted. We began to get ready for the patients that we were going to get, we thought. We had heard that our ambulances were also going downtown.

We prepared stretchers. We got all the supplies out. We got everything ready to do a whole bunch of surgical procedures, of course. But as you know, we didn’t get very many patients, particularly at that point. Most of them were going to St. Vincent’s, which I understand is closed.

Of course, we were keeping track of what was going on the news. So, we all kind of pitched in, got the stuff ready. And a lot of the people, which was really the harrowing part of doing it, had kids who were downtown, of the families that were in the operating room at that time. Their kids were at the schools downtown. People were working at the World Trade Center, people were working all around it. So many of the people on the staff were terribly nervous about their loved ones, of what was really going on. And, of course, we kept up with the news of the next plane that hit the Trade Center and wondered what was going on.

And it was a terribly quiet day. It continued to be very quiet all day, very sad. The news was sad. Everything was sad. And, we just wandered really kind of aimlessly, because there was absolutely nothing for us to do. Nothing came. No emergencies. So nothing was happening in the hospital. No surgeries were being taken place. In fact, I’m sure that plenty of our people were down there taking care of whatever we had to take care of. And again, the great concern was for the mothers, apparently, whose children were there, who, by the way, did walk up to be with their parents or walk home.

Most of the people that were there were not terribly affected by death. Fortunately, I had no one that I knew who I could consider a family or friend that probably would be killed. My kids called me from California, from Denver, wondering how we were all doing. And lots of people were always inquiring as to what was going on.

Finally, at the end of the day, after we had done absolutely nothing, we were sent home and told, “Please come back in the morning,” which was very difficult, particularly for people who were in Rockland or Westchester or whatever, because the bridge, the George Washington, was closed, as many of you probably know. So we had to choose to come in another way. I came in over – for some reason I’m forgetting which bridge I came over – but I came over in the middle.

And it was really very, very interesting because it was clogged, as you can well imagine. But interestingly, everyone was kind of chit-chatting as we came across because we were so stalled. People could chit-chat, and it was amazing how many people you could hear talking and saying where they were from. They were from as far as Canada and they were coming into New York to help. So I was just totally amazed. It was almost wrenching, the number of people that had come so far to help us. There were paramedics, there were cops, there were all kinds of people who were coming in. And again, the second day was the same. And I’m always amazed at how we got across. And that happened for a couple more days, and then it kind of quieted down and then we were left with the aftermath.

But I have to say that I’ve never been in New York City when it was such a wonderful, friendly, helping kind of time.

And we didn’t do surgery, we didn’t do a lot of things for over a week. The aftermath for the people I knew in the hospital was really pretty lucky, because they all kind of survived. There were definitely people in the hospital that lost people, and so it was a sad, sad time.

And the things I kind of take out of it, I have a niece that lives in New York who never, never goes to work anymore without her, as she calls them, her “9/11 shoes” on, and they’re sneakers. She said that she ran from many places that day, and she had high heels on, so she constantly remembers that she wears her 9/11 shoes. And, of course, you never forget the kind of day it was, because it was an incredibly gorgeous day. So it always kind of remains in my mind. It was sad.

As we all know, that was one gorgeous day...

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LOVE LETTERS

LUCY A.

Hi, my name is Lucy. I was a nurse. I’m retired from nursing since 2012, but I was working at a shelter. I worked at many different places as a nurse. I liked moving around. I would get bored after a period of time in one place and want to try something else. I did those kinds of things.

So I was working at a shelter for women who were pregnant, or young mothers, really young, with their first child in the Bronx. It was a place called Sienna House. It was run by nuns because it was actually a convent with a church was attached to it. And it was really a beautiful place for these young mothers, and I think the best place they could be if they were homeless. It had about 27 mothers in it.

So as a nurse, one of the nurses there, one of my responsibilities was to do parenting seminars and workshops with the moms about how to take care of their babies and their toddlers and things like that.

But I’m also an artist. And so as an artist, it’s what I wanted to head for, but my father said I would be a nurse, so I became a nurse. But I had art inside of me. So I had asked the director, Samari, if I could do Creative Parenting with the moms.

I had done, on a volunteer basis prior to working there and being hired there as a nurse, I had done Creative Parenting workshops there before on a volunteer basis. And that’s how they came to meet me. They were looking for a nurse. They said, “We really want a nurse, do you know anybody?” I said, “I’m a nurse.” “You are a nurse? Licensed?” I said, “Yes.” So I had to update my license and all. But anyway, I started working there. They hired me as a nurse there. And so my office was in the nursery. And so I started doing things with training the staff there on how to engage with the babies and do story time with them and training them on being more active with the babies.

But one of the things that came up was because I I do art projects, and I’m a member of the Bronx Council on the Arts. And so I proposed doing this project which was writing – for the mothers to write love letters to their babies. Some of the mothers came straight out of the foster care system. They were pregnant. They were really young, 17, maybe 18, or they were immigrants. They had come from another country. They had nowhere to live and were homeless.

So I was given permission to do this Creative Parenting. And the project included the moms.

I said to the moms, “What you’re going to do is you’re going to write love letters.”

One of the moms said, “To my boyfriend?”

And I said, “No, to your baby.”

“A love letter to my baby?? That’s gross! A love letter to my baby?”

I said, “Yes.”

It was something I had done for myself when I was pregnant with my children because my mother didn’t raise me. I never heard the stories of when she was pregnant with me, anything like that. So I wanted to,teach these mothers how to write these love letters. So several of the mothers were really interested in it now they had to commit to attending at least eight sessions out of ten, and they were willing to do it. And I said, “It’s going to be a surprise. There’s going to be something bigger at the end.”

But I didn’t want to tell them what it all involved, because I wanted them to have an interest first in being in that, in writing these love letters. But the whole idea was for them to write these love letters, which then would be turned into their baby’s lullaby. The love letter would be something like a promise to my baby. What is your hopes, your dreams for your baby? Because you have hopes and dreams for your baby, and just write these things down.

Then I connected with a friend of mine who is a composer and an opera singer, and she does a lot. Originally, I met her through the Daniel Pearl foundation. They have this global project called Harmony for Humanity. If you remember Daniel Pearl, he was the journalist who was beheaded. So his parents started this foundation, the Daniel Pearl foundation, and they had this project called Harmony for Humanity. And through that, artists from all over the world connect with composers and all. This is how I met this composer.

She was from Italy, and she came to New York. I said, “If you ever come to New York, let me know. I’ll give you a tour of the Bronx.” And we met, she came to New York. She said, “Hey, I’m coming to New York.” And I said, “Great. Let me know when, I’ll pick you up. I’ll take you on a tour of the Bronx, It’s beautiful.” Because a lot of people around the world hear about the Bronx, all these horror stories. So I said, “I’m going to take you to some really beautiful places.” And she fell in love with the Bronx. So she and her husband ended up getting a home. They had homes in different parts of the world, and they always wanted a home in New York. And they always stayed in hotels in New York. When they visited New York, then they got a home in the Bronx, so they became a part of the Bronx, but they traveled everywhere. But in any case, I connected with this composer.

I told her about my project, and she was part of something called the Lullabies Project, which is part of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, Harmony for Humanity. And so the whole idea was to take these love letters and turn them into lullabies for the babies and then create CDs with the baby’s picture. As you know, the label would be the picture of the baby. Now, the photography part, I reached out to some college students, and for the summer, they agreed to come from the midwest or something. They flew in to New York and came to the Bronx, stayed in the Bronx, and they were part of the photography project in which the babies were photographed, in different costumes and stuff like that.

The mothers got all excited. They went a little wild with the costumes, but the pictures are just gorgeous. I have tons of these pictures. And so, anyway, this whole thing became then the Lullabies Project at Siena House. And so the mothers wrote these beautiful letters. My friend Shelley then sang them, and she had a guitar and she sang them. And we created this nursery musical piece for each of the mothers from their love letters, which then became the baby’s lullaby, their personal lullaby out of the mother’s love letter.

These mothers, I get emotional when I think about it, especially two of the mothers. One, because she was a little rough with her baby. She was rough, and I was trying to cut through to her. I constantly told these mothers, “You’re beautiful. Everything that comes from you is beautiful.” In order to kind of connect them with that their child is beautiful and worthy. And so that’s how these love letters came out, because that had to come out of them, out of something beautiful. And so this woman saw that her words, her feelings, her emotions for her baby were beautiful, because what she wrote was making a promise to her baby, she’d take care of her. You know, it was very moving.

After she did this, it was near Christmas time, and so I had decided I wanted to get this mother to kind of, like, feel, to see her beauty. To see her beauty. So I set up this whole thing in the solarium where she would come in, sit down with her baby. Her baby was dressed up in a red little cute little dress, she had the baby with a little bow on her head, and to take this beautiful picture of her kissing her baby. I told her, “Give her a little kiss, just like a little butterfly. Just a very light, tender kiss.” And I got below her and took a picture. I wanted to include her. She had these beautiful gray eyes, very large. And I took a picture of her kissing her baby. And when she saw that picture, she couldn’t believe it, how beautiful it was. And the tenderness. I have the picture, actually, because I made copies. That’s the picture that went onto the CD for her baby. And it was so beautiful. That woman changed so much because she couldn’t see herself the way others saw her. I mean, when she had her mouth going, you know, she sounded awful, but she really wasn’t inside. She really wasn’t at all. She was just angry person at times. She had a bad life.

And so this project was done. And then we took the moms out to lunch at the end of it all. And they were presented with their CDs and the photographs. Of course they got the photographs. 30 photographs of these babies, 50 photographs, 100 photographs. Because these were professional. These students were professional photographers. And they were amazing.

When they first showed up, that was on my day off, and they were put to fold laundry and stuff like that. When I showed up, they said, “They’ve had us changing.” I said, “That is not your job. You are not. You’re not folding laundry. You’re going to be taking pictures of the babies and teaching the mothers how to photograph them.” So the mothers learned how to photograph their babies. And, you know, some of them were in a basket with flowers. It was a whole setup, like these beautiful photos that are done in photography studios. That’s how they were done. And so it was a really exciting project. And the photographs! Each mother selected the photograph they wanted as their greeting card for their baby’s first birthday. When they turn one or two, whatever that would be their greeting card.

And the Sienna House received one of the photographs in which there was one mom who was pregnant, she was in the center, and pictures of the babies all around her. And Sienna House still uses that photograph, that greeting card, as their greeting card for the holidays. And they call it the Sienna Angels. I’ve done a lot of projects, but I think that one has stayed with me the most.

I've done a lot of projects, but I think that one has stayed with me the most.

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ONE NIGHT & DAY IN THE LIFE OF A CAREGIVER

DANNETTE Q.

My name is Dannette. My story is entitled One Night & Day in the Life of a Caregiver.

It’s 10:00 p.m. Do you know where my husband is?

This person who is disguised as my husband of 57 years has slowly moved into my home, and the strong, creative and loving one is gone, at least today.

Tonight, and every night at 10:00 p.m. I hook up the feed to the pump and to his peg tube, which is located in his abdomen. Three days a week he gets an infusion through a peg line. Each day there’s a pain coming from both of them.

Usually this is peaceful, but not tonight. He’s annoyed that he has to go to the bedroom at 10:00 p.m. to start the feed and he has to stay in bed until 10:00 in the morning. He wants to stay up tonight and watch television in the living room, but he has to go to the bed. He says his life stops at 10:00 p.m.

He now wants to ask the doctor to teach him how to hook up the pump so that he can move freely. He hasn’t even asked me if I would show him. He wants the doctor to show him. Now I’m not up to putting the food, connecting the feed. How do you do that when you’ve been insulted, yelled at, and just don’t feel loving? But I do it anyway. Now I’m upset though, because of his tone and other word attacks. How do I feel? How do I get close to him? But I do.

This is the person who sometimes says, even when the aide is here, he wants me to be there with him all the time. So what’s up? Why this difference in today or yesterday?

So the attitude continues and the TV is loud, so I decide to go to another room. And that’s how the night ends.

It’s now 9:30 the next morning. Good morning! I tried to pretend all is work. The reply: ruff ruff. Oh boy, here we go.

The day moves forward with a mixture of attitude, mostly negative again. I understand that he wants me to be with him sometimes, but all the time, even when the aide is there? That’s also annoying. It just does not feel good.

I don’t know how to feel, even though I have been told that his mood could change. Especially when one has been ill for months, does not feel good, and cannot do what they are used to doing. Especially being a strong man.

I hear you, but it’s difficult. Bring my husband back. Please help. Caregiver? I guess. Everything he needs, I try to get him to keep him alive. But I guess the word, the saying is, you give and you take.

I was speaking to my therapist and she told me to speak to the doctor about his complaining about the pain in the pick line and in the peg tube. So I did, I wrote a message on the portal to his infectious disease doctor, and he responded.

So now, as of a week ago, the pick line has been removed and instead of getting an infusion of the antibiotics he’s going to be breathing the vapors of the same type of medication. This is every morning or afternoon, whenever, through a nebulizer. So this should help because the pick line’s out. Now the peg tube is going to be exchanged for one that hopefully will not pain him, because this one has some leakage. And the doctor has agreed that we can start day feedings instead of the night. So we will do four feedings in the day instead of four continuous feedings during the night.

So I guess prayers were heard. The end. That’s it.

JOSIE: So is that your life right now, Danette? Your husband is in fact still alive?

DANNETTE: He’s sick. Yeah, that’s my life right now.

JOSIE: Oh Dannette, my heart goes out to you, because I’ve seen it and been with my sister while she was caretaking. But he had a good attitude.

DANNETTE: That would be helpful because that’s not happening here. I mean it’s not every day, but I still can’t deal with it well.

JOSIE: Maybe we ask God to help you walk on his shoes. Because imagine all of his freedom has been pulled out from under him.

DANNETTE: Absolutely. I appreciate your comments because I only express my feelings to people that I know. And I just feel this group is some people that I can talk to because we’re doing stories. That’s how i ended with this group, my practitioner suggested that I do this because she didn’t know of a caregiver support group. So it’s something to look forward to each week, when I can be here I will.

It’s something that you have to almost experience it to understand, caregiving. One thing I learned not to do is to try and feel what he feels. because i can’t feel what he feels. And I made mistakes in the beginning saying to him, “There are people worse off than you because there are people with lung disease that have to have oxygen and you don’t have to have oxygen.”

And I would tell him things that he’s able to do. He can’t do very much, he’s very weak because he was in the hospital, but he is better. He is better. And just those two changes that I told you about, in the end, that’s going to make some difference in how he will feel. You know, just having that pick line out, because it was hurting him every time he would move his arm, because it had been in his arm since October, and the peg tube has been in since August. So, you know, it’s just a lot. But anyway, thank you for listening.

CHRISTINE: Dannette, I was really listening carefully to the part where you were saying that you tell him, “Well, at least you don’t need oxygen.” Let me put it in perspective. I have disability issues, and when people ask me what I do, I say, “I’m the full-time caretaker for a disabled person, and sometimes she does well and I have time off. Oh, she is me. I’m her.” And so I was thinking how when I say, “At least I don’t have this or that” or I count my blessings, it works good. If someone else says it, it makes me really mad.

DANNETTE: I didn’t know that until I did it, you know? And then I realized, that’s not good. You can’t. I can’t tell him how to feel, you know, because he has all the other things that he is feeling, and I can’t say, “At least you don’t have this and that,” because that’s what I did starting out. I thought that would make him feel better.

CHRISTINE: The impulse was really good, you know, focus on the positive. But I find for me, I need to vent about the negative, then I can focus on the positive. If I don’t vent on the negative first, I just feel minimized, unseen, misunderstood, you know? But anyway, yeah, you learn the hard way.

DANNETTE: Yeah. Well, maybe I’m learning right now from you saying that you vent the negative, because that’s what he does.

CHRISTINE: Maybe tell him, “Vent some more, vent some more,” you know? And then I would like to think at the end of venting, he’ll say, “ell, at least I don’t need oxygen!”

It’s 10:00 p.m. Do you know where my husband is?

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