Teaching “TellTale Souls – Tap Memory, Write Memoir” workshops is extremely rewarding for me, especially when people send me their bio-vignettes! And participants find their reward when they locate a significant memory gem about their mothers and move it into memoir. At a recent workshop, I had the pleasure to meet Diane Zelenakova, who wrote the following Mother Memoir, beautifully capturing her mother spirit.
This is what Diane said about writing her Mother Memoir, “For decades I have enjoyed the craft of writing, but it was a particular pleasure and an honor to reflect on my pioneering mother’s life and create this piece, which was catalyzed in the midst of several deep conversations we had when she was in her 80s. My motivation in telling her story was both to bring her historical experiences to light and to keep her spirit alive. She was, and remained, a dynamo.”
(The attractive woman in Coast Guard uniform in the photo is Genevieve .)
Genevieve Zelenak, Trailblazer
— Diane Zelenakova
Genevieve Zelenak McKay woke up at 5:30 a.m. in her southern California assisted living facility. Breakfast would not be served until 6:30. She lay awake in bed, said some prayers, and watched as the dawn slowly lit up the sky. She had had a dream of when she was 11 years old and her father, a musician, had bought her a junior clarinet. Musing on this pleasant memory, she saw herself in exquisite detail as a young girl playing the reed instrument in an orchestra in front of a Detroit audience. She wished her short-term memory were as good.
Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she carefully steadied herself as she slid onto her feet, wincing a little at the arthritis in her back. She was 87 years old. She walked to her dresser and took her three morning medications: pills for blood pressure, cholesterol and osteoporosis. Walking to the sliding glass doors, she opened them and stepped outside. The smell of spring flowers overcame her. In awe of the giant palm trees swaying in the morning breeze, she spent a moment appreciating her surroundings, including the brilliantly colored tulips in pots that one of her daughters had given her. She looked across the well-kept facility grounds far into the distance, where she could see the mountains beginning to turn green.
At breakfast, where she always had cranberry juice, dry cereal with nonfat milk, and tea, she was seated with three men. She joked to them that this was how it had been in the military – several men for each enlisted woman. “You were in the military?” asked one of the men. “I was an officer in the Coast Guard,” she said.
She woke up in the Sutter Street residence club where she had lived since being stationed in San Francisco. Close to Chinatown, she reveled in the sound of the clanging cable car. She looked out the window: foggy again. But she didn’t mind – it was nothing like Detroit, the icy winters, the feet of snow to wade through. Full of energy, she donned her crisp Coast Guard uniform, rayon stockings (“rayons, not nylons!”), black pumps, and hat. She was among the first class of women in the Coast Guard, and had been admitted as an officer because she had a college degree. She loved her life. She was 23 years old.
Her workplace was one large room, full of people and activity. She was in charge of supplies and had several men who reported to her. It was exciting to be serving her country, yet not have to be in a war zone like her Navy sisters. “The Coast Guard didn’t have guns,” she reasoned. “And I’ve always been a pacifist.”
The assisted living facility’s food was good. Nutritionists made sure the menu did not contain excessive salt, sugar or bad fats; an Armenian chef who had once cooked in Paris added continental flair. Colorful art consisting mostly of landscapes covered the dining room walls. The wait staff comprised young people of several nationalities, many of them first-generation Americans attending school. Genevieve, whose father had come through Ellis Island from Slovakia, loved the international tone and exchanged pleasantries with a young Slovakian waitress in their native tongue. “My father was born in a castle,” she said. “And when I was 5, he told me, ‘Don’t ever lose your language.’”
Because she could understand several eastern European languages, Genevieve was immediately ordered to learn Russian so she could communicate with Russian men coming to the U.S. via ship. American servicemen opened cargo vaults, and Genevieve checked the manifest to see if the items were as represented. “They tried to sneak stuff in,” she later told her daughter. Her services were also used to intercept communications.
“You know,” Genevieve said to her Greek tablemate, “sometimes I really miss being in my own home – I could eat whatever and whenever I wanted. But at least I don’t have to clean house, drive, or shop anymore. And my kids don’t have to worry, knowing there are nurses around the clock and the hospital is just across the street.” That afternoon, a movie was shown in the activities room: a World War II movie with Montgomery Clift and Deborah Kerr. It reminded Genevieve of her most difficult day as a Coast Guard officer.
Around midafternoon, Genevieve’s boss, an admiral, took her aside and told her she would be going down to the pier later that day to welcome home members of the Bataan Death March. Genevieve momentarily panicked. What would she say? What kind of shape would these men be in, and how could she maintain her composure at the sight of them?
That afternoon, she went down to the pier. From a few blocks away, she waved at the returning POWs – men on stretchers, amputees, some of them with brown skin from malaria, all of them gaunt. Genevieve gamely waved and smiled, although her heart was breaking at the sight. Her boss did not want these men to be alone their first night back, so Genevieve was among several servicewomen who met them at the Top of the Mark – one woman per table with three men – to cheer them up. They told her that they appreciated her efforts, and upon hearing this, Genevieve thought, “MY efforts! What about them?” She went home and cried.
The Coast Guard was always interesting. She was at the opening session of the UN conference at the Civic Center in 1944. Her job was to listen, and later translate. People were arguing intensely. There were men from Russia and China. The Russian men wore crisp uniforms, and their dates were attired in slinky black dresses, black silk stockings, and pearl necklaces – outfits that Genevieve envied. Silk stockings were rare. Because of their attire, she did not think these women were the Russians’ wives.
After dinner, which included delicious broiled salmon and Caesar salad, Genevieve settled down to watch Jeopardy, a long-time favorite game show that she claimed kept her mind sharp. After the show was over, her daughter called. She felt lucky that her sons looked in on her and her two daughters called her faithfully every week. Her middle daughter, who had also spent her early 20s in San Francisco, pressed her for details about life in the City.
“At least three times a week I’d go out at night,” Genevieve related. “There were so many servicemen in relation to women, I’d often have three or four dates in one night – early-evening cocktails with one man, dinner with another, and then dancing with someone else. We went to the Fairmont, the Top of the Mark, and so many other nice places of the time. The dancing was to big-band music; it was all so exciting.”
As the conversation continued, Genevieve watched night fall and heard an owl. She finally bade her daughter goodnight. Classical music was playing on her favorite radio station. Humming along with the melody, she gracefully danced a waltz around the room. She stopped in front of a pastel drawing of a flower, done by her grandson when he was 5. Seems like just yesterday, she thought. Now he was in training to be on the ski patrol. She walked to the dresser and took her final medication for the day. Yawning, she got ready for bed.
Daughters and sons from 9 to 90 use The Story Woman’s TELLTALE SOULS METHOD to write bio-vignettes that move memory into memoir in a uniquely creative way, “Keeping Spirits Alive.”
You can easily find the stories I’ve posted from the book by searching “Bio-Vignette No.”