With Courage and Common Sense:
Memoirs from the Older Women's Legacy Circles

edited by Susan Wittig Albert & Dayna Finet

Univ. of Texas Press, 2003. ISBN 0292701888.
Reviewed by PJ Pierce
Posted on 11/18/2003

Anthologies/Collections; Nonfiction: Elders; Nonfiction: Memoir

I am fascinated by women's stories—particularly the stories of our "tribal elders," as I like to refer to women who have lived long lives and who have become wise along the way. I feel confident that a woman who has reached her sixtieth birthday surely has gleaned enough wisdom from her experiences to be able to impart some of it to me and to other members of the younger generations. And when her wisdom comes packaged with a story from her life, I feel I am getting more than my money's worth. That's what happened when I read the one hundred essays that make up the book, With Courage and Common Sense, published by the University of Texas Press in conjunction with Story Circle Network.

In fact, I read the two hundred-page book in one sitting. I'd finish one story and couldn't wait to get into the next! The pieces are each one to four pages in length and written by some of the five hundred women—all over sixty—who were taking part in the two-year pilot project called "Older Women's Legacy Circle" (OWL-Circle). The OWL-Circle pilot project, carried on from 1998-2000 by SCN, was so successful that OWL-Circle groups have spread in the ensuing years, and are an integral part of SCN today.

The women in the pilot project met in two-hour weekly or monthly writing circles with ten members in each group. Participants wrote for twenty to thirty minutes on an assigned topic, and then were given the opportunity to read their stories aloud to the group. They covered two topics during each session. Many women struggled at first to produce only a few awkward sentences. Some felt that they lacked sufficient writing skills. Many had always regarded their life stories as too insignificant to record. But the OWL-Circle Project provided them the opportunity to prove themselves wrong on both counts.

In the end some four thousand short memoirs by almost five hundred writers were produced. Of those memoirs, editors Susan Wittig Albert and Dayna Finet chose one hundred to include in the book. These remarkable essays are grouped within chapters dealing with significant life experiences: identity, home, work, family, love, loss, living fully, witness to history, and legacies. The women write candidly about the courage it takes to face everyday life events, as well as many of the extraordinary events of the past ninety years—those events that have been recorded in history books mostly by men. But instead of going through the dry facts that we memorized in order to pass ninth grade, this history comes alive in the personal stories of the little girls, the wives, the mothers who were gravely affected by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and World War II. We are privy to personal accounts of survivors of a concentration camp in Germany and of the air raids over London. One writer remembers living close to German prisoners of war in Hannibal, Missouri. Some write of the remarkable events of the 1960-70's through feminine eyes: the Vietnam War and memories of the days MLK and JFK died. One woman tells of being an American in Czechoslovakia during the Russian invasion of 1968.

Such stories are chilling. But others are downright entertaining. Jeanie Forsyth tells of becoming a seasoned adventurer during her month-long Outward Bound experience in Big Bend National Park. She climbed rock cliffs, rappelled down them and spent three days alone surviving in the wilderness—"one of the hardest and most rewarding things I've ever done," she writes.

Rose Vrba (now deceased) writes of teaching in a country school in rural Nebraska during the Depression when she was a young woman. Pat Simmons writes of clerking in her dad's general store as a young teenager during World War II. Janice Wilkins asks, "Does one have to be crazy to say that cleaning out horse stalls was one of the happiest times of one's life?" as she remembers the sweet smell of the hay and the giggling of her adolescent friends as they worked together in the barn. Oleta Cates tells of learning the secret of making her husband's roast look as if it were "bloody rare," like he demanded that it be. "Don't ever believe that red dye in food coloring will kill you," she writes. "I did this for twenty years and used gallons of the stuff."

Selah Rose tells about divorcing her abusive husband of forty years and starting over again in her sixties, calling it "the scariest thing I have ever done." "The new little retirement abode is purchased. And, looking ahead, the best is yet to be," she concludes.

And there are love stories. Paula Stephens-Bishop writes about Bill, her first love and her soul mate, whom she married and lost after having children and grandchildren with him. "I still close my eyes and smell his after-shave lotion...I feel his arms around me when I remember how we danced. When I'm desperate, I hear him say, "Hey, Maud Farkle, things could be worse..."

Whether or not the writers of these memoirs meant to impart wisdom along with their stories, wisdom flows from page to page. As a baby boomer, I have come away from the book inspired and certainly feeling wiser. The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these OWL-Circle writers are lucky indeed! In addition to being inspired by this treasure chest of stories, perhaps the most important thing the rest of us can learn is to leave our descendants the same kind of legacy: our stories—written by the person who experienced them in the first place.

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