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Writing It Like It Was, 18 Seniors in Class Leave Legacy for Posterity

May 15, 1986|HOWARD MANN | Mann is a Van Nuys free-lance writer

"Who has any work today?" asks the instructor. Five eager hands shoot up. And, once again, one of the most unusual writing groups in the Valley is off and running.

Eighteen men and women, mostly over 60, are meeting to write their "life narratives." They are telling it like it was--so that it can be passed down from one generation to the next as a personal family history.

The class meets every Thursday in Van Nuys at the Bernardi Senior Center. Group members are asked to write about such things as their earliest, most powerful memory, an important place in their past, significant events, interesting characters they've met.

The result? People who have never taken pen in hand for any creative reason are suddenly voicing their feelings with depth and eloquence.

At a recent class, Virginia Stribling, 75, of Van Nuys remembered a day in Seattle in 1932 when she met Franklin D. Roosevelt in the elevator of the Olympic Hotel:

"Directly in front of me stood three tall men . . . the one in the center with flashing eyes and a big grin on his face, spoke. 'Hello, little girly. Hope we haven't inconvenienced you.'

"I said, 'Oh, no, no' and backed away, squeezing myself against the wall so they could pass. The two men on each side of him, with their arms under his shoulders, began dragging him toward the back door. I saw that he had no use of his legs from the hips down. But the thing that struck me was the agony and pain that crossed his face."

Sandy-haired Eugene Mallory, 73, of Van Nuys wrote about going back to his hometown in Iowa after many years:

"All the street names had been standardized by the postal people and I was looking for the streets of my childhood. I had not come 2,000 miles to see standard streets. I was looking for Fifth and Bridge ... I look back and see an old house sitting there in this ruined neighborhood, in this pokey town. I tell the old house, 'There is nothing I can do for you. Someday a bulldozer will come clanking down the street and it will crush your bones."'

Rose Rothenberg of North Hollywood, neat and trim at 70, wrote about Kate--a dear friend with deep emotional problems whom she has lost track of.

"I really must look her up and resolve the unknown. It will be all right, I tell myself, if I encounter a new, a different Kate so long as she is whole and at peace with herself. The dread is that I may find a defeated Kate, a Kate disintegrated and beyond mending, a lost soul.

"I cannot have an old friend left dangling, ghostlike, in my consciousness. I must find her and re-establish her reality, no matter what that might finally prove to be. I will find her and hope that she will let me be her friend."

David Yavitts of Van Nuys, now a slender, feisty 90-year-old, recalls running away from home when he was 3 1/2 because his mother had cooked his pet duck. His family found him at the police station:

"There I was, sitting on a table with an ice cream cone in my hand and sobbing. The tears ran down my face, washing the black soot off in white streaks. The ice cream washed my lips. I was a sight! My mother said. " 'Come home, dinner is waiting.'

"I said, 'Mother, I don't eat duck!' "

Not all the memoirs are of events so sweetly poignant. John Strong, 66, of North Hollywood is big, blustery and the comedian of the group. He described a fight in the Army in 1940:

"The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Big Red, dropping his towel, sprang like a panther at the sergeant, and grabbed the belt from his hands. He then proceeded to slash at the sergeant's legs with a dozen strokes, then turning him, gave him a dozen strokes on his rear end.

"The sergeant was screaming like a scalded cat. 'Don't hit me anymore, Big Red.'

"Big Red was spectacle--totally nude, his 6-feet, 210 frame moving like boxer Jack Dempsey in his prime. Finally, he picked up the sergeant, who was about 6-1 and weighed maybe 160 pounds, and threw him across the room like a rag doll, knocking over two cots."

The stories are bound in a manuscript titled "Backward Glances" and given to the group. Years from now, when their descendants go looking up the family tree, they can look to these stories.

Guiding the class members through their individual stories is instructor Bernard Selling, a slim, mustached man in his 40s. Selling has written a self-help text in life-story writing, and also teaches the course at the Felicia Ma

hood Center in West Los Angeles. He holds other writing classes in Venice, Van Nuys and at West Los Angeles College. His audience for life-story writing will grow even larger when the course is broadcast on Group W.

"This is a fulfillment for me," he said. "After my father died, I read copies of his letters and couldn't find anything personal about him. Ultimately, this is the lure of personal history writing--to write so well that, hundreds of years from now, those who follow us can see clearly the footprints which we have made."

But there are other dividends of the course. Louis Doshay, 58, of North Hollywood, said writing about her past has helped her "understand my relationship with my family and friends."

Others in the class point to the satisfaction of sharing life's experiences with people of different backgrounds. At one session, Rose Rothenberg began a story: "My mother made the best gefilte fish I ever tasted."

At the end, Eugene Mallory raised his hand. Some in the class undoubtedly wondered what a man from the cornfields of Iowa might have to say about gefilte fish--a classic Jewish dish.

"I know this fish," he said. "It's carp from the Iowa Lakes. They dump it in the Dubuque Springs and feed it on corn meal."

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