Writing at any age

One community in Woodbury is providing space for seniors' memories, creativity and self-expression

Bev Handy helped create the Stonecrest writers group in Woodbury
Bev Handy helped create the Stonecrest writers group in Woodbury

They call themselves The Writers’ Group, the 15 to 20 seniors who come to the activity room twice a month at Stonecrest “senior living community” in Woodbury. They come with grey hair, Medicare supplements and pre-existing conditions. They need no sympathy, however.

They bring with them passion, purpose, pride and, yes, playfulness. Over their lives and times, they have raised a child, buried a spouse, travelled the world, learned a dance, survived a trial and relished a triumph.

Facts over fiction

And they’ve got stories to tell. Bev Handy was the chief instigator and organizer of the group in 2008, with help from the Stonecrest staff. Handy, an 87-year-old mother and grandmother with eight great-grandchildren, got interested in writing when she took a class at Metropolitan State, as a 46-year-old freshman.

“I like the idea of leaving stories behind,” she says. “It’s getting to be hard work these days because of my eyes and that I write everything out in longhand. I tried my hand at fiction once. That was a riot.”

If Handy’s fiction is a riot, her short stories are real, such as the one titled Sunday: “I wake up and realize that today is a special day,” she wrote. “It is a once-a-week holiday; it is a holy day. After running around a week barefoot in a sun suit, I put on white anklets, black patent leather shoes, good underwear and a dress. Donald [her brother] wears pants, shirt and a tie instead of the usual overalls.”

While Handy enjoys her own stories, she gets as a big a kick out of others’ tales, too.

“When I hear them,” she says, “I can picture what life was like for the writers growing up. Those stories take me to a different time and place.”

Childhood tales

Ruth Bunch’s story takes readers to a backyard apple tree, a place she escaped to (after doing an admittedly half-hearted job of housecleaning).

She wrote: “My father had left a few of the low branches so we could easily climb. I was soon as high in the branches as I could scamper and lost in the adventures of a book. But not for long. Mother had inspected the cleaning job and knew exactly where to find me.”

Many of the stories come from day-to-day life. Some, however, reveal a moment-by-moment drama, such as the day the infant son of Maxine Johnson’s neighbor had a seizure and stopped breathing.

Maxine asked her 15-year-old son, John, for help.

“I remember John mentioning they had talked about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in school so I handed the child to him and told him to get in the back seat and try to get him to breathe,” she writes. “I drove 90 mph (to the doctor’s office) and halfway there I heard a little noise from the baby — and a little gurgle. We arrived at the office and John carried the baby in and handed him to the doctor.”

Color, meaning and clarity

The baby boy survived to go to college, play football, become a policeman, get married and raise two sons of his own. Maxine’s son is now 68 years old, with his own family. He has urged his mother to keep on writing and that’s exactly what she’s doing — at age 95.

“Some of the things I write are pretty personal,” she says. “But I feel like this group [she motions around the table] is a family. They listen to me and they know me.”

What I know about the Stonecrest storytellers — The Writers’ Group — is their desire for active minds, vivid recall and proper prose.

They spend time crafting their stories. They describe events with color and clarity. And many of the stories reveal nuggets of wisdom that come from first-hand experiences with recovery, redemption and reconciliation.

They truly give meaning to the phrase, “Once upon a time … .”

Dave Nimmer has had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].