Late at night, Peggy Strait sits at her computer and thinks about the dangers of living in New York city during a pandemic.
Then she remembers her life in 1937.
The 87-year-old writes: “As I begin to think about actually leaving New York City and what I must pack for the trip, I thought of the day in 1937 when Japanese warplanes flew over China.
“My father’s reaction was immediate and decisive. He withdrew as much money as he could from his bank, packed it into a suitcase, then hurried home to get his wife and five children.
“We left Canton, China that evening for Hong Kong.”
Every other week, Strait shares these memories and reflects with a group of her peers in the Writing From Life Experience workshop in Manhattan, where she has lived for more than six decades.
They talk about their childhoods in Nazi Germany and the Liverpool Blitz, as well as the smaller, more personal tragedies and triumphs that fill a lifetime.
The pandemic poses a much greater risk to the writing group than most – their median age is 87 – and in an extraordinary year like 2020, their work provides a welcome dose of perspective.
“Once you start writing these stories, your brain is so activated that you don’t feel sleepy,” Strait said. “Sometimes I am up until 3am.”
The group of about a dozen people meet for roughly two hours, though the sessions usually last longer. Teaching artist Susan Willerman has been leading the workshop at Morningside Retirement and Health Services since 1994. This is the first year it’s taken place online.
“It feels very satisfying when we’ve met,” Willerman said. “You feel like you’ve been with your people and talked about something meaningful.”
Some of the recent works are light – “I didn’t realize the world that used to run on cars now runs on Zoom,” wrote Marilyn Crockett, 79. Others remember tragedies of the past and compare them to today.
Harry Arpadi, a Holocaust survivor who later frequently traveled to communist Poland, Romania and Hungary while working for a US advertising agency, wrote about Donald Trump.
“During the impeachment trial with proven evidence of wrongdoing, all of the Republican senators, afraid of the President’s wrath and punishment, cleared him of all charges,” Arpadi, 96, wrote.
“A Dictator could not have done much better.”
Then there is Strait, who at the beginning of the pandemic fled Manhattan to Missouri to stay with her son and his family. She left just before the city became the center of the global outbreak this spring.
She has since returned to her apartment, where she’s lived for 61 years.
Strait had never written for pleasure before joining the group, but has now published one memoir, Unbound: Memories of an Immigrant Daughter, and has made considerable progress on a second this year.
“I am more than surviving this pandemic, and in a sense it’s been an adventure,” Strait said. “I really think that this internet has changed our lives forever.”
Her biggest concern is being able to obtain food, but she has a unique system for addressing that.
If Strait needs an item, she puts on her mask, grabs her shopping cart and makes the short journey across her door step to the apartment across the way.
She bought the apartment decades ago when her family was expanding and her son – an emergency room doctor – has stocked it with everything she could need until his next visit, creating a safe shopping oasis for Strait.
It may sound strange, but her precautions are informed by life experience. In 1974, she was hospitalized for a month with viral pneumonia and her dread of facing that pain again, more so than death, compels her to do what she can to avoid contracting the virus.
“I am doing pretty good,” Strait said. “I think I am not suffering like many little old ladies because I have this network.”
Her social life has intensified with video chats and she sometimes does two or three calls per day. Friends she used to meet once a month for dinner now talk each week. On Thanksgiving, she shared a virtual meal with family in at least nine different states.
Strait said she knows people who are struggling with isolation, but she feels very engaged and described herself as being “surrounded by people who love me” even though she can’t have face to face contact with them.
“Younger people are used to, and need to have, someone close by,” Strait said. “I think I’ve gotten over that, living alone for ten years.”
The oldest member of the writing group, Rebecca Rikleen, said she had also adapted to the solitude of pandemic life. “I think that being 97, I am more content with being home and being alone,” she said.
Rikleen was born on a ship her parents boarded to flee Stalinist Russia. The final wave of the Spanish flu had ended three years earlier. In the first decade of her life, the Great Depression and the second world war began.
She said the challenge of facing something like this pandemic is how long it has demanded that people be wary of other people.
“We can handle any of this, any of it, but when it drags on, that extended isolation is extremely difficult for people who like people,” Rikleen said.
She left Manhattan in March, first to live with a daughter in upstate New York, then to live with her son in Maryland. She is not able to oil paint with abandon like she would at her apartment, but she is grateful to be able to be with family and have some access to nature, instead of the concrete jungle, at a time like this.
“But it’s hard for me too,” Rikleen said. “Thank goodness for Zoom. I’m so happy to have that, to have reunions where I can look at people’s faces. That is quite wonderful.”
She first joined the writing workshop 25 year ago. “It’s been a wonderful way to remember and express,” she said.
Her primary medium is poetry, which she uses to communicate how things look and feel to a 97-year-old. Last month, she wrote Thankful, which includes the verse:
I still am surprised to wake after the pleasure
of a good night’s sleep,
I can still walk; get to the bathroom on time,
dress myself, in so many layers
enjoy music, a language without words.
I enjoy my grandson’s laughter
I relish your cooking, and that poet I just discovered
Paint still shows red or blue when I dip my brush
In slowed down pandemic life, she has had more time to reflect and write.
“The one positive thing for me is I do write poetry, and this kind of isolation gives me a lot of time to think,” Rikleen said. “To think, to compose, to edit, to try to share, to listen to others on Zoom, so there are positive things we didn’t used to have.”
But it’s still difficult being separated from others she said, and when she returns to normal life she is looking forward to dining out with her friends.
Marjorie Horton, 93, is also anxious to see friends in-person again. She said the promising news about a coronavirus vaccine was a “relief” and she’s ready to take it when it becomes available.
She joined the writing group about five years ago and like many others, she doesn’t need a prompt to figure out what to write. “The past has been quite dramatic, so there’s plenty of material,” she said.
Horton was about 10 or 11 when the Second World War began and was living in Liverpool, the most heavily bombed area in the UK outside London. She said she didn’t grasp the loss of life at the time and was excited by the sounds, her siren suit and the family’s Anderson air raid shelter.
At 18, she left for London and worked as a nurse in psychiatry and midwifery at various hospitals before moving to New York City. She received a doctorate from Columbia University, stemming a lifelong interest in philosophy, then spent decades bouncing between New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Mallorca, Belize and the UK.
She said the pandemic is “quieter” than other dramatic life events, particularly the Second World War.
“Life is kind of boring at home,” Horton said. “As a child, the sirens and it all, was exciting. I didn’t realize the loss of life, I was too much into myself and having fun.”
She is trying to adapt to video conferencing, but doesn’t love it. “I feel inhibited to speak on Zoom, but I’m trying to get over it,” Horton said.
Another change in her pandemic life is she said she’s been moving around less and getting “creakier” even though she still grocery shops on her own and takes walks to the Hudson River. Sometimes she convinces her husband, who is 88 and has dementia, to join her, but it can be difficult to get him out of the house.
A bright spot in her week is her calls with her sister, who is five years younger and lives in northern California. They speak practically every other day.
Horton said: “I have my ups and downs, sometimes I can get very upset, but then I go to bed and I wake up, and I’m okay, you know?”