On large squares of white cloth, Ethel Muhamed has stitched the facts and the fables of her 75 years, the dreams and the dailiness of life in Belzoni, Miss. She brought the finished pieces to the White House Conference on Aging at the Washington-Sheraton Hotel, where the things she had to say about them were recorded for a project sponsored by the Smithsonian called "Tools for the Harvest: Oral History, Storytelling and Tradition in the Aging Process."
Most of her long life had been made up of the love of a large family and a hard-working man, and when her eight children were grown and her husband died, there seemed to be nothing left to her but empty days and the echo of the past in the long dark nights. "I felt so lost and lonely," she says of the months that followed her husband's death 16 years ago. "So depressed and broken-hearted. I wondered why did this have to happen to me? I wished I had them all back. I wished I could relive my life."
And so she did, stitching the moments, major and minor, into her embroidery, creating brightly colored canvases that commemorate the chapters of her life.
There in one of the pictures, Ethel Muhamed and her husband fly astride the bluebird of happiness, looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, only to find that "the pot was filled with children instead and that was our happiness." She stitched the house the sharecroppers lived in, and the Baptist church they attended. She made a picture of the night when a great storm thundered all around her and her frightened children held tight to the nurse, Mittie, instead of to her and the young mother was embarrassed that they preferred their nurse's comforting to hers. And she stitched the general store her husband, a Lebanese immigrant who started out with $27 in his pocket, had started right before he married her.
She misses those days, the cottonpickers piling into the store, the wagons filled with bales of cotton piled so high they fell off as they were carried to the gins along the delta. Now the members of the congregation of St. Joseph's Baptist Church, embroidered so painstakingly, are either dead or living in nursing homes, and all the farmers have tractors and other machines to do the heavy work. "I'm sorry it's gone," she says now. "They didn't live so bad."
She still runs the store, and does her stitching in the evenings, transforming gritty reality into a past made more cherished by the charity of her memory. "Of course it's fun," she says of her days in the store. "I don't want to be in a rocking chair, looking like an old lady."
Muhamed and the other conference participants who came to be interviewed sat at small tables with attentive young interviewers and talked into tape recorders, telling the stories of their lives. The fliers for the project explained that its goal was "to discover some of the ways in which storytelling customs and traditions can help to integrate past and present, and imbue a changing life with meaning." It was a little sad: Once the knowledge gleaned over a long number of years was a valuable commodity, necessary information that was passed from one generation to the next. Now the exercise was an academic one and the roles had been reversed; it was the young teaching the old to make use of their memories, so that it might help them grow old, now that growing old was something of an embarrassment, no longer a reason for reverence.
"We're trying to explain how older Americans can use life-review projects and reminiscence, ritual and tradition in the aging process," says Steven Zeitlin, who is conducting the interviews with the help of several assistants under the auspices of the Smithsonian Folklife Center. "We ask them if they get a chance to tell their stories," he says. "Who is their audience? Many of them have no audience, old people hang around with other old people, often their grandchildren live far away. The key word is recognition, wanting to be recognized for your life." By recalling their childhoods, he says, they know they are the same people then as they are now, still connected to the way things were, and to their hopes then of who they hoped they'd become.
It isn't the landscape of history that contains their tales, not their place on the grand canvas. Their eyes are trained on a more personal perspective: the old hurts, the old friends, the wry moments, the old wounds. "My mother's love for me was never real," says a 65-year-old woman, her eyes still pained. "She never wanted a third child. You have to know. You have to have a lot of strength to stand these things. It's like trying to drive a car and you know somehow you're not doing it right. And you keep wondering who you are, you keep looking and looking."
Pearl Goodhope remembers a girlhood in a northern Alaskan Eskimo village. She is 75; the broad planes of her face remain impassive as she talks of learning English in the Quaker missionary school, the first break from the culture of her people. It was not her only education. In the spring they fished for trout, in the summer for seal and the beluga whale. The first whale would be cut and divided among the whole village, among those who hunted and those too old or too weak to hunt. It was simple then, she says, "If you starve, we starve; if we eat, everybody eats. Now the young people go out in a boat and instead of giving it to the elderly people, they charge them for it."
She remembers how the boys were taught to hunt and the girls to prepare and to preserve the meet and how "we didn't rebel or nothing. We liked to learn. We knew that the boys didn't look for a beautiful girl. They wanted the girls who could do things. A beautiful girl couldn't do anything." At least that's how she saw it then. Now, Pearl Goodhope smiles and says, "I think now that the boys were just lazy."
She left Alaska for a long while, and lived in Washington state with her husband and her eight children. She wanted them to get a good education, and she wouldn't return until they all had one. She worked as a maid, she sewed parkas and mukluks, she was trained as a nurse and worked in a sanatorium and in nursing homes. When her children were grown she moved to Anchorage and she is active now in working to better the conditions of the Eskimo elderly.
Now Pearl Goodhope works with senior citizens in Anchorage, hoping in particular to establish senior citizen centers and places where the old people can live. She is not one of those who find the vision of senior citizens living a long away from their families and the joy of multiple generations a bleak one. "I don't think old people should be living with their families," she says flatly. "Eskimos tend to have quite a few children. After you've raised six or seven children, you don't want to have to raise six or seven more grandchildren . I like to have my children visit, but I told them that if they want babysitters, they should pay for them."
"My dear, I have no regrets," says Alice Smith in her red and white striped socks. Her 81-year-old eyes are blazing and her sonorous voice is undiminished by the wheelchair in which she sits. "Whether it goes up or down, I've always been right there. I've enjoyed it; I've just enjoyed it. What do I have to regret?"