If you like to read, and enjoy quirky, welcome. There are about 30 random things here for you. After you read a short story you may even find some personal comments/insights! The main purpose of creating this blog is for writers. I see so much written about writer's block, and honestly, I don't have it. Occasionally, I write short stories, longer stories, books, plays, one act plays, monologues, and sometimes I even think one is good enough to submit somewhere. Of course, when you submit a story to a magazine that receives 200 stories a month and publishes five, you'd better enjoy the process of writing. I'm not suggesting that I'm a good writer, merely that I can sit down and just start writing.

It is important to write, to constantly be working on your art. If you are constantly plagued by writer's block, perhaps you are being too selective in what you write about. With that in mind, I wanted to share with you some examples of my writing, from someone who can write all the time. Occasionally the topics are a bit strange, but I don't let that slow me down, I love to write and get to a finished product. Hopefully, by looking at some examples, you will say to yourself that phrase that all artists who visit MOMA in NYC say: "Well, I can do this!" That would be good, because you can! One of my posts is about a talking tomato. (You have to be able to do better than that!)

In part I'm trying to get some of my stuff in one place, so keep in mind I never claimed it was going to be an incredible read. You can decide that. I will tell you that occasionally I have a story in me that seems to fit the goal of a publication, and I try to write specifically with that goal in mind. Lately I've been considering publications that publish nonfiction memoirs, so some of the entries you'll find here will have that flavor. Perhaps this is a way to get past writer's block - find a publication looking for something that you'd like to write. It seems like memoir-based publications may be a good place to start, because we're all experts in our own families. I'm using a blog here to share some of the things I've written; the blog format is not ideal, so you need to poke around a little at old posts, to see if you can find a story or something else that may interest you.

Two last items. None of these are finished products. I usually get to a point where I have something written, and then stop. If it is something I may decide to submit for some reason, I'll finish formatting, following the specific rules of the magazine or organization (the rules are alwaysdifferent). If you do see something in here that you may be interested in using, don't hesitate to contact me.

So welcome to my blog. Welcome to my writing. Write, people, write! It feels good.

Please also consider getting a copy of my first book, Saturday Night at Sarah Joy's. All Royalties go to the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund. Please check out the book's blog at:

Thank you!

© 2012 John Allison

Friday, July 20, 2012

Old Memoires as New Gifts: Cutting Paper Snowflakes and Making Scrapple

I was awarded a federal grant to collect evidence for an afterlife.  I guess that was the topic.  The actual title of the proposal that I wrote was Pre-Death Intervention Experiences.  The head of the Psychology Division of the National Science Foundation personally arranged it for me.  He only asked that I write an extensive report at the conclusion of the funding period, but that I neither publish the data nor ever make a public presentation on it.  We were both interested in getting the "experiments" done, and it will all be just anecdotal - no proof of anything - but it was good enough for me, and apparently him.

I loved my 90 year old, 85 pound, 4 foot 7 inch Aunt Florrie.  As a child, she was on the boat that brought our family from Nottingham to the States.  She was always sweet and kind and supportive of everyone in our family.  As her money ran out, we talked to a social worker who arranged to have her stay in a state-supported facility, essentially an apartment.  She was old but still sharp.  She didn't need the typical care of someone with dementia; she needed a roof over her head.  It turned out that all 12 floors in this building on the corner of 38th and Chestnut in Philadelphia were occupied by those in similar situations.  It was a building full of poor elderly waiting to die.  I couldn't bear to think of her stuck in this place alone, and was quite surprised to learn that, if there were empty apartments, "normal" people could petition to rent them.  There was one empty apartment, right next door to Aunt Florrie, and they were happy that I was eager to be near her, to help her.  I had no idea at the time that I'd get so attached to so many others in the building, but it was for me a labor of love.  They all needed just a little attention from someone, anyone, and they all had great stories; it was an easy decision for me to move in.

I walked into her apartment one Saturday morning so she could make me breakfast.  Yes, it was what she liked to do, and she made scrapple just like my father used to, so it was a treat.  I was surprised that I didn't smell grease in the air when I entered.  Instead I found her sitting in her chair, reading the Inquirer.  I stood there and looked at her.

"It's supposed to be a hot one today," she said.  "Another day above 90!"

I stared at her.  I glanced over to her table next to her chair where her glasses would sometimes sit.  There they were.

"You're not wearing your glasses," I said.

"Don't need them," she answered.

Now this is not the kind of conversation she and I have had in a very long time.  Usually I have to repeat, word by word, every sentence, multiple times, to get her to hear me.  Not today.

"So what's going on?" I asked her.  "Your vision has improved and it seems like you're hearing me better!"

She smiled.  "I don't know, but I'm not going to complain," she laughed.  "I guess you're here for breakfast.  I just hate putting the paper down, I've missed it so."

And with a few bats of her eyelashes, I ended up in the kitchen, making pancakes for her.

The next morning we found her dead in her bed.

I don't know exactly what happened, but if she was given a day of health before she died, I was just grateful.  It was an interesting occurrence, a medical oddity perhaps.  I wondered how many times such things happen. Does everyone get a healthy day at the end?

As I got to know the other people on our floor, and on many others, I always shared with them the story of my Aunt Florrie and this peculiar event, in the hopes that perhaps I'd get the chance to see it happen again.  It very much is a right-place-at-the-right-time observation, if it ever happened again at all, but I tried to talk to more and more of the folks in the building.  If they ever saw or experienced something similar, perhaps they would share.

Bob, like most of the tenants, was alone.  His wife had died years ago.  He would often talk about his mother, apparently a feisty woman, his three other brothers, and his sister - his "baby sister".  It was the kind of family that seemed to always be squabbling rather than enjoying the time they had together.  One day, Bob got into a phone conversation with his baby sister, who was living in Delaware, about how he felt growing up in the projects, and how he knew that being poor took a special toll on her.  She was surprised and asked him why he was talking about his feelings - not a typical conversation for them at all.  He replied, "well you are my little sister," and from then on their relationship changed.  If he didn't call her every Sunday night at 7 PM, he'd get a call at 7 AM on Monday - always with the same salutation. 

"What, did you forget about your little sister?" 

She kept him on his toes, and they made up for many years on those Sunday nights.  He was devastated when lung cancer took her so early.

I was in Bob's apartment, trying to plane a little wood off the top of his bedroom door, which was constantly sticking because of the heat and humidity.  The phone rang and I heard him answer.  I listened.

"Oh no I didn't.  I never would . . . OK, that sounds great.  See you soon.  I love you."

And that was it.
After demonstrating to his satisfaction that his door could swing free I had to ask him why he was smiling like a fox in a chicken coop (a favorite line of his).  He said that his sister had called.

"What, did you forget about your little sister?"  she asked.

He assured her that he did not.

Then she apparently said that she'd see him soon, he said "great", and that was that.

"But Bob," I smiled, "your sister has been dead for three years now."

"I know," he replied.  "Pretty amazing phone call, eh?"

"Well why didn't you ask her how this could be?  Where she was?  Anything?"

"Well she said she'd see me soon, so I guess I can ask her whatever I want then," he replied.

"Well if she appears to you tonight standing by your bed or something, you'll tell me won't you?"

"You bet I will!"  he agreed, looking forward to it.

Bob died later that day.  The coroner estimated the TOD at 5:31 PM.  He was found sitting on the sofa with his phone in his lap.

More than a year of trying to keep in contact with as many people as I could in the building had paid off.  I realized that we can know very little about a person's last hours and what may happen, especially relatively healthy people such as my building mates. 

How much don't we know about?

Since I was teaching Psychology at a small college in New Jersey, I wrote a proposal to the NSF on my theory/interests, and asked for one year's pay.  This would allow me to go on sabbatical, and spend more time with my peeps, and hopefully get some more anecdotal information on the topic.

The Director didn't have the proposal peer reviewed, which all proposals are.  Often they are read by as many as a dozen experts in your field, and comments collected.  Based on these comments, a decision is made on whether it is worthy of funding.  Instead, he read it himself and told me he'd fund it.  He was more excited than I was!  I could now interact full time with as may of the folks here as possible.  The timing was bad and my Department Chair wasn't very happy that, at the last minute, he'd have to find a temporary replacement for me.  He was very frustrated that I would not provide a copy of the proposal to him, but I gave him the budget pages, which is all he needed.  I wasn't making any friends with this one, but that was OK.  Work was work.  The apartment was life.  Work doesn't matter.

Mr. Davis was not much of a talker, but he liked to have someone sit with him and listen to the radio, so this is what we would occasionally do.  We were sitting, sorta listening, the windows were open and I could hear birds chirping outside, wondering why that didn't bother him.  Suddenly he let out a yelp, then started laughing.  "Michael!" he said, "you're a character."

I had not detected the slightest bit of Alzheimer's confusion in Mr. Davis, ever, but I explained to him that my name wasn't Michael.

"I wasn't talking to you John, " he cheerily snapped.

He slowly got up from his chair, very slowly picked up his cane, very, very slowly walked around behind my chair, and stood there.

I tried to be patient.  I sat.

"Out of the blue" as he would often say, he "flicked" my ear - you know, he held his index finger back with his thumb, then let loose, flicking me!

"Ouch!"  It was my turn to yelp.

"I'm just an amateur," he replied.   "Michael used to always do that to me.  Big brothers are such a pain at times."

So, he had had his ear flicked.  There was no one else in the room, and he assumed it was from his brother Michael.  He seemed very pleased with it, not scared or nervous.  As he was shuffling back to his chair he hit the floor hard.  Heart attack.

The woman everyone just called Aunt Helen smelled the lilac perfume that her mother used to wear about an hour before she died.  I happened to have been there.  I smelled it too.  I couldn't tell you where it came from, but it made her happy.

There's no intentional scrapple theme to this report, but it is Philadelphia!  James Buchanan (no relation) in apt 321 and I often shared a laugh over our very common experience.  We both used to look forward to the weekend when our fathers would let our mothers sleep in, and they would make breakfast.  They both would make scrapple, or sausage, or bacon, and eggs.  The only difference was that Mr. Buchanan's father used to make what he called pepper eggs, constantly putting pepper on them as they cooked.

I wasn't planning on stopping by to see James but I smelled food cooking so I knocked.  He yelled, "Come in".  This was pretty typical.  Most tenants left their doors open so they didn't have to get up; visitors let themselves in.  He was happily sitting at his little kitchen table, with a plate of scrapple and pepper eggs half finished.  I smiled back.  He even offered some to me!  He took his coffee cup off its saucer and moved a little scrapple and a little egg onto it for me.  Just a little.  He was clearly enjoying it.

I told him that I was pleased he decided to cook!  He had only used the microwave since he arrived.  He assured me that he didn't. 

"I smelled and heard the scrapple cooking, so I came into the kitchen.  There it was, on the range, in the pan, all done.  All I had to do was turn off the range and eat it," he explained to me.

It was a very common feeling that I saw at this point - not one of amazement or surprise.  He wasn't alarmed or astonished that food appeared cooked in the kitchen.  He knew who it was from, and didn't leave a scrap on his plate.

I took a chance, went to my apartment and called 911, requesting an ambulance.  I wanted to catch him before he died.  I wanted to know more.  When they arrived, only 20 minutes later, he didn't answer the door.  His breakfast and he were gone.

I would encourage tenants to reminisce when I visited, to try to learn about the people in their lives who perhaps loved them the most, or influenced them the most.  Mrs. Alice Yokum, 86 years old, who insisted on going by her lifetime nickname "Baby", was wheelchair bound, but mentally in excellent shape.  One evening, when American Idol came on, I knew there was going to be nothing on that Baby would want to watch, so I visited.  Every story of hers led back to her mother, who was a good and loving parent.  Baby was an only child and her mother worked hard to keep her content, always sad that she did not have a brother or sister for Baby to play with.  On rainy summer afternoons they'd dress up, get some pots and pans and spoons, and march around their house banging their "drums", having their own little parades!  If they were within three months of Christmas and Baby was bored, her mother would cut out snowflakes with her to keep her busy.  Talk about a lost art!  Folding up a piece of paper, cutting pieces off/out of it, then unfolding it to see the snowflake you made.  When she told me the story, she surprised me by pulling out of the junk drawer of her dining room bureau a piece of paper, brown around the edges, which thankfully unfolded without crumbling.  It was a snowflake her mother or she had made many years ago - she still had one!

Baby was such a quiet person, I was blessed to have her living over me.  I was actually surprised to hear something hit her floor.  It was a metallic sound.  Now people do drop things - I had just never heard her drop anything before, so I went up and see if she had a spoon that needed to be picked up or something.

Her wheelchair was next to a simple dining room chair, both seated before the living room coffee table.  She was slumped over, scissors in her lap, and half a dozen cut but as yet unopened snowflakes before her.  In front of the empty chair, there were several snowflakes, some still folded, some opened in all of their glory.  They were really impressive.  Baby never learned this intricate style.  Between the chair and the table, a pair of scissors lay on the bare wooden floor. 

We can never know if everyone gets some sort of personal treat in their last day, if possible.  I'm hoping we all do, but I'm not someone who believes in fairy tales, or in the afterlife.  Still, in my year spending as much time with 130 people over the age of 70, I "witnessed" nine deaths, that is I was there just before, and for each one, there was something good.

After my year was over, I filed a pretty extensive narrative on my activities and how I spent my year with the self-proclaimed "house of old farts" inhabitants. I was surprised to be invited down to the NSF to make a presentation.  Thirty-four scientists from the National Institutes of Health were hand-picked as my audience, each because of their specific areas of specialization.  Most I believe were psychologists or medical doctors.  The Director who invited me encouraged me to just come prepared to tell some stories of the people I knew.  He would even have a nice overstuffed chair for me on the stage, so I could just relax and talk to the audience.  I asked for a pipe and a blanket for my lap, and he smiled as he told me that it wasn't in my budget.  The question and answer period lasted an hour and a half, following my 50-minute talk.  The response was very warm, although they asked me to, for now, keep my observations to myself.  It was nice that they trusted me and I was prepared to keep my word as well.  I did, however, find it all very peculiar.  It felt like I was not exactly trail blazing with my work.  They had other data.  I had no idea what it was.

When I returned from my visit to D.C. (actually, my talk was held in Bethesda), there was a letter awaiting me from the Director.  I learned that I had been awarded, without even submitting a proposal, a second year of funding.  My salary plus 10%, for a third year, was also provided, with some wording suggesting that additional support would be provided for as long as funds remain available to the agency. 

I turned 60 this week.  This is not the career I was planning on, but one I'm happy to pursue.  My Chair was shocked when I submitted a request for a year of absence, right after my sabbatical.  I don't know what he'll do when I request additional time off. 

While my immersion into the lives of these senior citizens has been great, and the occasional surprises continue to be shocking to me, I occasionally think about another question.  When my time comes, what will my surprise be?  To be honest, I can't wait see!  I wonder if I'll even get time to write it down.  I just hope it somehow involves scrapple.

© 2012 John Allison

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