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Young at Art

A writing workshop for seniors yields portraits of enduring exuberance


Published October 6, 2010 at 8:16 a.m.

John Jackson, Jack Rowell, Sara Tucker
  • John Jackson, Jack Rowell, Sara Tucker

At first, Cookie Campbell thought joining the writing workshop at the Randolph Senior Center would be a waste of time. “I came because Mary made me,” she says dryly, eliciting a smirk from her friend Mary Jacobs, who herself signed up for the memoir-writing class about two years ago to appease a nagging granddaughter. The women had no idea they would stick with it for so long, or that their work would interest anyone but their children and grandkids.

But here they are, white-haired and neatly dressed, at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury one recent afternoon, accompanied by two other members of the class, their writing coach, Sara Tucker, and photographer Jack Rowell. The Randolph writers are the stars of the current exhibit, “The Hale Street Gang: Portraits in Writing,” which features Rowell’s black-and-white portraits of the participants paired with audio recordings of each writer’s work.

Chatting in the gallery, Campbell sits with her back to her own portrait. “I don’t like having my picture taken,” she says. The image captures something of her modesty: Her mouth forms a hesitant smile, while her eyes are cautious and sincere, as if to say, Really? You want a picture of me?

Campbell, 86, whose given name is Barbara, never considered herself a writer. But she had a story to tell. In 1961, with three sons already and longing for a daughter, she finally gave birth to a baby girl. “I was queen for a day ... for an hour,” she says. That is, until the doctor broke the news.

“I’m sorry,” she recalls him saying. “She’s mongoloid.”

Campbell was given a choice: take the baby with Down syndrome home or leave her at the old Brandon Training School for mentally disabled children. Campbell couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her anywhere. So, with little support beyond that offered by family and friends — this was 14 years before Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 — she took her baby home and named her Ann.

“Easy to say, and easy to spell, if the time ever came,” she writes in her memoir, My Annie, which she completed over 18 months as part of the Hale Street Gang — so named for the address of the Randolph Senior Center.

Before they became a gang of 15, the earliest members of the group were participants in a poorly attended memoir-writing class offered at the center more than two years ago. For a while, it was just Sara Tucker and her mother, Idora, sharing their writing with the instructor, a recent MFA graduate. Tucker, a travel writer and copyeditor, had recently moved back to Randolph — her hometown — from New Jersey to care for her mother, then 86. She was eager to see Idora reengage with the memoir she had started writing years ago but never finished.

Tucker, now 56, had been working on her own memoir about the years she spent in northern Tanzania with the French safari guide who would become her husband, Patrick Texier. She’d been close to getting it published in New York, Tucker says; she had an agent who loved the story. But after three years of revisions, Tucker decided to self-publish. She says she’d become so caught up in the job of finding a publisher that she’d lost some of the joy of writing.

“I knew [the class] was going to be good for my mother, but I also knew it was going to be good for me,” Tucker says. “It didn’t matter to me that these were writers who had never published anything, and that they hadn’t even written all that much. What was important was that they wanted to write then and there.”

The MFA grad left after six weeks. By then, a small group had formed, and Tucker took on a leadership role. She didn’t criticize or edit, just kept the writers on track, making sure everyone got a chance to read their work at the weekly meetings.

Tucker soon realized that these stories deserved a wider audience.

“They thought that maybe their grandchildren would be interested,” she says. “I knew that other people’s grandchildren would be interested.”

Last winter she called her childhood friend, Jack Rowell, and invited him to visit a workshop. He fell in love with the gang and returned with his camera. The writers were hesitant to be photographed — the wrinkles! — but Rowell won them over. He wrapped up the three-day shoot with a surplus of intimate portraits, alternately silly and sage.

Just like the gang.

At a recent workshop, six writers sit at the round table in the craft room, surrounded by a scattering of scissors, spools of thread and fake flowers. Ruth Demarest Godfrey and Bonnie Fallon have just discovered that they both have stories about driving through the back wall of the garage. But when it’s Fallon’s turn to read aloud, she quickly shifts the tone in the room. She’s been writing about her mother, who killed herself at age 64.

It’s been 35 years since the suicide, but Fallon had never put her thoughts about it on paper. As she reads the words aloud, describing in chilling, spare detail exactly how her mother did it — rat poison; and when that didn’t work, a plastic bag and duct tape — she starts shaking. Beside her, Bonnie Willis puts her hand on Fallon’s.

In many ways, the gang is more a support group for people who like to write than it is a writing workshop. They all say the members have become like a second family. And they all felt the loss when their oldest member, Margaret Egerton, died last April.

Egerton, 98 when she joined the group a year ago, was famous in Randolph. A member of the local bridge club and a regular at the water-aerobics class at Vermont Technical College, she was always impeccably dressed. The gang says she bubbled with life and didn’t believe in regret. Younger people swore she must have some kind of “secret.”

Tucker asked her once about that secret. Egerton answered without hesitation: “to love.” And that was that.

“She saw her life as a spiritual journey,” Tucker says, noting that Egerton came to the Hale Street Gang with an ambitious goal: to write a complete autobiography. “It was her one and only chance to get it all down, and, by God, she did it.”

As a child in 1915, Egerton moved with her mother and brother from Cleveland to her mother’s native England, where World War I was raging. In her autobiography, she recalls the air raids in movie theaters and war-bond rallies in Trafalgar Square. She writes about climbing up a footstool to her nearly 100-year-old grandmother’s featherbed. At the senior center, Egerton “would get very emotional,” Tucker says. “She once said, ‘I feel like I’m on the edge of the mystery of life!’”

When Egerton finished her autobiography, Tucker printed her a single copy. Three weeks later, the old woman died. She just missed the recording session for the Folklife Center exhibit, so Tucker did the reading for her. Most writers in the exhibit are represented with one or two portraits, but Egerton’s shoot was so raucous — she spent it shaking her cane and hamming it up for the camera — that Rowell just couldn’t narrow it down. The resulting series of photographs, full of joy and goofiness, illustrates Egerton’s secret.

These senior citizens are a modest bunch, but all of them seem tickled to be part of an exhibit and to see their work printed in a self-published, 250-page collective memoir called The Hale Street Gang: In Cahoots. Still, their primary interest hasn’t changed: They want to share their stories with their grandchildren.

For Campbell, this means self-publishing her memoir, My Annie — but only to print a few copies.

“It’s just a little thing for my family,” she insists. “And the group … and my grandchildren … and some friends.”