Telling their story

Telling their story

With writing prompts, members of Rockland congregation share memories

Janet Miller and her grandson Micah Fox
Janet Miller and her grandson Micah Fox

Thanks to Janet Miller of Pearl River, members of the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg have been telling their stories.

She’s the organizer of a program for her congregation called “Write Your Stories: Calling All Grandparents, Great Aunts and Uncles.”

How she came to lead it is a story of its own.

It began with the death of her husband, Jack, in January 2020, after 58 years of marriage.

“For the first six months, I wasn’t able to grieve or mourn or anything,” Ms. Miller, a retired nurse, said. “I must have been in some kind of state. I just wasn’t functioning. Around July, all of a sudden it hit me, and the floodgates opened up, and I couldn’t stop crying.

“I called Rabbi Drill.” That’s Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, one of the shul’s spiritual leaders. “I asked her what I should do. All I do is cry.

“She said, ‘Start writing.’ I said, ‘What should I write?’ She said, ‘Write about your feelings, the things you’re crying about, whatever comes to mind.’

“I wrote letters to my husband, letters to my mother-in-law, letters to people long gone.”

Then, her daughter-in-law in Chicago told her about a program there, which sent out writing prompts twice a week for people to write to their grandchildren.

“I started writing on these topics as an extension of my grief writing,” Ms. Miller said. “It was so therapeutic for me. It was such a lifesaver, given this covid and being stuck inside and not able to socialize. The writing just took off.”

When she talked about it with her friends, she found they liked the idea too. So she started a version of the program through the Orangetown Jewish Center’s Hazak group for older adults. It started in January and ran for six weeks.

Once a week, she sent out two writing prompts. She made some changes to the Chicago program. “Originally it was about a grandparent-grandchild connection,” Ms. Miller said. “We adapted it because we have some people with no grandchildren. Our flyer said it was for grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, or uncles, or anyone else who wanted to tell their story.”

About 70 people signed up.

The writing prompts “are designed to bring out what our life was like when we were young,” Ms. Miller said. “Our grandchildren don’t know us as independent individuals who had a life, who dated, who had boyfriends and girlfriends, who got in trouble.

“You know, they sell these books, ‘My Grandma Remembers,’ for you to write your story. I was given them by my children, but I could never get started writing in them, because it doesn’t give you a guide to begin.

“These topics are more specific. They’re short. They help you zoom in on your emotions and feelings and about things that happened in your life.”

These topics include:

“After the light went out, I…”

“My first car…”

“My grandma’s kitchen…”

“On my mother’s dresser…”

Some participants send their writings to her to post on the synagogue’s web page.

Ms. Miller said the program “was a way to bring the community together during this difficult time of isolation. It connected us together.” And that’s apart from its explicit goal, connecting participants to their extended families.

Ms. Miller doesn’t actually send her stories to her five grandchildren, who range in age from 19 to 12. Instead, she calls them up and reads to them.

Their response? “They just sit there enraptured,” she said. “They love hearing about my childhood.”

Her youngest grandchild, Micah Fox of Suffern, 12, confirms this. “I think it’s really great,” he said

“We can find out in such an interesting way how people behaved and acted back then. It taught me a lot of things I didn’t know about my bubbe, like how she met my zeide. It really brings it to life.”

His favorite story from his grandmother?

“Probably when she was in grade school and how she was a bit of a trouble maker,” he said.

Or in his grandmother’s words: “Oy! In grade school I was every teacher’s nightmare! I didn’t pay attention, I didn’t listen, and I disobeyed at every turn.”

The story concludes with a reminder that grade school is not destiny: “Happy to say I made it through school, nursing school and college just fine!”

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