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'My grandmother . . . . was Miss Rockaway Beach.' : Spoken Histories Help Fill in Generation Gaps

May 14, 1986|JULIA FRAZIER

"In the normal course of events, these things don't get said. . . . I feel like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, eavesdropping on my own funeral," mused 66-year-old Benedict Freedman, thumbing through a history of his life written by his 12-year-old granddaughter, Shauna Shapiro.

Freedman, a professor of mathematics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, was among about 60 authors, teachers, gold miners, airplane designers, truck drivers, beauty queens, inventors and war heroes who attended the Oral History Box Social on Friday at Thurston Intermediate School in Laguna Beach.

They had come from as far away as New York and from as near as the next block to hear tales of exotic travel, favorite fishing holes and narrow escapes from death. They had come to hear the stories of their own lives, as recorded and recounted by 11- and 12-year-olds in a sixth-grade language arts class.

As part of the core requirement for sixth-grade English at Thurston, 63 students were required to write reports on people at least 50 years older than themselves. After weeks of interviewing, researching, writing and rewriting their reports, the young historians had invited their interviewees and families to the school to share a glimpse into the past over homemade box lunches.

Young and old sat in folding chairs surrounding lavender cloth-covered tables strewn with fresh flowers and elaborate lunch boxes. Dozens of chocolate-covered strawberries nestled in baskets among delicate doilies. The students fidgeted nervously, clutching cue cards and giving a final tug at a sun-streaked lock of hair or a pastel designer shirt.

Amid laughter, applause and occasional tears, the children introduced their subjects, many of whom were their own grandparents. One by one, each interviewer mounted the podium to announce his or her guest with a short anecdote.

"My grandfather was so smart he went to college when he was 13," Shapiro said proudly in her introduction. "Later he married a beautiful actress and had three beautiful children."

"It is wonderful to see the devotion between the grandchildren and their grandparents," Shauna's grandmother, author Nancy Freedman, observed. "We thought we were very unusual having that sort of relationship, but I see from this that it's more universal. I was beginning to think grandparents all shut themselves up in condos in Malibu," she said, her eyes twinkling as she tossed her long, loose, silver hair. "I am awed."

"What impresses me is how well the reports are organized," said Benedict Freedman, flipping intently through his granddaughter's report. "I teach college students, and I was impressed by the questions Shauna asked. I think it's a tribute to the school. I am enormously flattered. I took a day off from work to be here," he said, gesturing at his brightly colored blue Hawaiian print shirt.

As the introductions continued, it became apparent that although the details varied dramatically, each person's life had, indeed, been transformed into a vital record of the past.

When Kimi Ikeda's turn at the podium came, she was ready. "My name is Kimi Ikeda, and I wrote my report on my grandmother, Katherine Gorin," began the 11-year-old brunette.

"I found out a lot of things I didn't know about my grandmother," she announced with a mischievous smile. "Like she went to Europe every winter, and one time she was in her tree house imitating Tarzan and she fell and broke her collarbone!"

Surprising Discoveries

Later, during lunch, her grandmother elaborated. "I still bear the scar from that fall," Gorin said, pressing a perfectly manicured, apricot-colored fingernail to her collarbone. Although Kimi shares her grandmother's Laguna Beach home, she expressed surprise at the information her report had uncovered.

"I had no idea she knew so many famous people," bubbled the granddaughter. "Amelia Earhart and Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly."

"Well, daddy was in show business," Gorin explained. "This report Kimi wrote brought so many things to mind. I think it's just fascinating."

Jeff Holmes sauntered to the podium in a black Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. "I interviewed my grandmother. When she was young she used to hang around the soda parlor. She was Miss Rockaway Beach," he announced amid a roar of appreciative laughter and applause. A dark-haired woman in a red-striped blouse rose gingerly and gave the audience a wry smile.

Tall, serious, brown-eyed Mia Lee recounted the story of her grandmother, So Ching Lee, who escaped from China during the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists just after World War II and was reunited with her husband in Brazil after they had been separated 12 years. Today they live on Balboa Island.

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