In Barry Levinson’s nostalgic film, Avalon, the central character, Sam, an old, old man shares a personal existential crisis. He tells his grandson of a walk he took around his old Baltimore neighborhood, and how he sadly found nothing he remembered, nothing familiar, no landmarks from the past. He explained that his distress was finally lessened when he found his now-deceased wife’s childhood home, and the old place was still standing. Sam admitted that until finding that old house, he worried for a moment that he never existed.
On Tuesday I led a book talk on River of January. The setting for this presentation was an assisted living facility, with an older group of listeners. At first my audience stiffly withheld their reaction to the story, clearly reserving their judgement. This audience quietly measured my credibility, waiting politely before offering any encouragement. Lucky for me, as the story progressed, the weather in the room shifted dramatically. Tossing out an Ethel Merman reference here, and a Bela Lugosi picture there, knowing smiles and nods rippled across the room. Adding a Howard Hughes anecdote for good measure, the listeners and I became one–kindred spirits–celebrating the names and cultural references of another era’s childhood. Their earlier caution was cast aside as memories surfaced, validated in story and song.
I’ve delivered the River of January talk to many groups in the last year; service clubs, libraries, and book stores. But senior facilities are fast becoming a favorite venue. The slide show and period music especially draws the older crowd enthusiastically into the story. On one particular slide, for example, a handsome man sits in the foreground, smiling directly into the camera. I like to point out this individual, identifying him as the young French actor, Maurice Chevalier. The ohs and ah’s are audible from the seats. It funny, but in other settings, projecting this same slide, the reactions are markedly different. Blank expressions seem to say “Should I know this guy?” So it is with great pleasure that I can validate this historic story with people culturally moored to the time period.
Drawing references to the past, both visually and with music means something tangible to elders. Satisfied faces momentarily lose age, wrinkles and graying hair. A child’s wonder shines from bright, animated eyes, as we share together the journey back in time to the world of Helen and Chum.
By the end of the presentation my friends at the assisted living facility treated me as an insider. These folks were in no hurry to leave and lingered long afterward to share their own reflections of years gone by. They talked of their experience using terms they believed I would understand. “Goody Goody” wafted from my cd player, serenading and livening the closing clean up. My husband tended to the packing, because I had people to visit, and stories to hear. In the glow of the presentation, accompanied by the melodies of another era, joy colored our personal exchanges, as these seniors beamed in the knowledge that indeed they, and their times are remembered.