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Stories from Roxbury’s elders evoke bygone era

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Stories from Roxbury’s elders evoke bygone era
Participants in the Roxbury Elder Storytelling Project stand together on stage after sharing their individual stories at the Dudley Library Nov. 20. (l-r) Helen Greer Guilford, James Raynor, Gerry Godding, Barbara Perryman, Mae Peeples, Aziza Bey, Cicily O’Bryant, Daniel Janey. Not shown: Phyllis Janey.

Nine community elders stood up at the Dudley Branch Library one evening last week to tell the stories only they can tell. From multi-generational extended family dinners, to adventures in Paris and in the elegant jazz clubs of a bygone Boston, to a generation’s childhood games — Pick Up Sticks, Jacks, Red Rover —participants in the Roxbury Elder Storytelling Project plumbed their memories to illuminate past moments bitter and sweet.

Phyllis Janey told of 1950s Sunday afternoons at her grandmother’s large brownstone house in the South End, playing with her girl cousins while the adults were up front “talking about the South.”

Standing calm and poised before a seated audience, Janey described West Canton Street life at that time: the iceman who gave the kids chips of ice, the vegetable man selling collard greens and cabbage, and children gathering in the evening.

“In the summertime, the street would fill with children as soon as it started to get dark. We’d play hide-and-seek … Red Rover … 1-2-3 red-light, ” she recalled. “I don’t know where all the kids would come from, but the street would just fill up.”

James Raynor has fond memories of family dinners on Walpole Street (now Saint Cyprian’s Place), where four generations gathered.

“This is something that’s lacking now,” he said. “It was a cornucopia of good will, happiness and food.”

Cicily O’Bryant recalled setting up countless “bean suppers” for an NAACP educational group when her husband, the late John D. O’Bryant, was working to raise money for student scholarships.

Others spoke of adventures, first jobs and career dreams.

Gerry Godding told tales of late-night waitress shifts at the Hi Hat and the Pioneer after-hours club, including the heady experience of receiving a $100 tip from Sarah Vaughn.

As an inquisitive 4-year-old, Helen Greer Guilford’s visits to hospitals where her ill brother was being treated set her on the path to a career in nursing. In her story, a puzzled little girl asks endless questions, over time learning to distinguish nurses’ ranks by their blue or white dresses, black or white stockings, “funny little upside down caps” and capes. The little girl grew up, left home for nursing school in 1949 and is still working today.

The Roxbury Elder Storytelling Project was initiated and coordinated by Valerie Stephens, a longtime Boston performer and storyteller and funded by a grant from the Fellowes Athenaeum Trust Fund of the Boston Public Library. Over seven weeks, sessions were conducted at the Dudley Library by Stephens and visual artist Ekua Holmes, who guided participants in creating memory collages.

Stephens said her role was not only to instruct the student-elders, drawing on her storytelling and acting expertise, but to build trust and offer a safe environment.

“Different people had different levels of insecurity, but they all got up and told stories,” she said. “What I told the group is, other people can come and write your story. Other people can record your story. But they cannot tell your story. You are the primary source.”

Some of the new “tellers” surprised Stephens by telling a different story at the event than she expected.

“Ultimately, it was their choice,” she said. “I gave them the tools and let them decide. I talked about props, and prompts. … I felt confident that if I could get them in the room and get them to trust me, we would have a great show.”

And, the show went off without a hitch. All nine told their stories, and the evening’s audience included both old and young, from fellow elders and middle-aged sons and daughters to one participant’s 10-week-old great-granddaughter. A group of middle school girls from the Dudley Library’s cooking class baked cookies for the event, and show included sets of live music by “The Phoenix Trio,” a string trio of local middle- and high school girls.

“Everybody loved it,” Stephens said. “One of the three little girls who made the cookies came up to me at the end and said, ‘I really liked the stories.’ I could have hugged that girl! They sat all evening and listened to the stories.”

Stephens said her goal is always to make a program an inter-generational experience.

“A lot of times young people don’t have time to sit and listen to stories of elders — and elders don’t have opportunities to tell stories to their grandchildren. It’s just not a part of the American fabric anymore,” she said.