Area seniors win awards for writing in Legacies Contest

Photo Courtesy of Essex County
Celebrating the 2019 Essex County Senior Legacies Writing Contest are, from left, winners Roger Birnbaum, Lorraine Kerry Barnett and Virginia Cornue; Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr.; winners Robin Ehrlichmann Woods, Vincent Dahmen, Belinda Putz and Ronald Merritt; and Essex County Senior Services Director Jaklyn DeVore. Not pictured is winner Gwen S. Toub.

CEDAR GROVE, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. and the Essex County Division of Senior Services recognized the writing talents of eight Essex County residents during the annual Essex County Senior Legacies Writing Contest Celebration Luncheon on Tuesday, May 21. The Legacies Writing Contest encourages Essex senior citizens to write essays about the people and events that have influenced their lives.

“Our Senior Citizen Legacies Writing Contest is a unique way for our older population to share their life’s stories and describe the people and events that helped to shape their lives,” DiVincenzo said. “Our seniors’ stories make you laugh and they touch your heart. They provide us with a different perspective on historical events and what our society was like.”

The Director’s Award was given to South Orange resident Lorraine Kerry Barnett who wrote “Remorse.” Winning stories were “A Night at the Opera,” by Roger Birnbaum, of Montclair; “Little Piggy,” by Virginia Cornue, of Montclair; “Marian Anderson and Me, by Gwen S. Toub, of Short Hills; and “Inevitably Invisible,” by Robin Ehrlichman Woods, of Montclair. Honorable mention stories were “The Myth of Invincibility,” by Vincent Dahmen, of West Orange; “Summer of ’55,” by Ronald Merritt, of Nutley; and “The Gift,” by Belinda Plutz, of Montclair.

“All our seniors have stories to tell, and our Legacies Writing Contest provides our older adults with an incentive to preserve their memories, and create a living history,” Essex County Division of Senior Services Director Jaklyn DeVore said. “Writing enables our seniors to share their memories with friends and families, allows them to reminisce about old times, and keeps their minds active. This is one of our most popular events because of the emotions and memories that are evoked.”

Barnett, who wrote “Remorse,” was 7-years-old when her father died. She felt a void in her life until her sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Potts, “adopted” her. Having a “father” again cheered her up and she excelled in school. Mid-year, however, a new student named Daisy came into the class and the teacher gave her more attention. In a fit of jealousy, she punched Daisy in the nose. “It really didn’t have anything to do with Daisy. It had to do with my fear of loss,” she wrote. Mr. Potts was disappointed, but after Barnett apologized he forgave her.

In “A Night at the Opera,” Birnbaum writes that in 2014 he read a casting call for the chorus of Verdi’s “Nabucco,” which was being staged by the Opera Theatre of Montclair. Ready for rejection — the last time he had sung was 50 years earlier in his university glee club — he was instead accepted into the chorus. There were many times he wanted to quit or thought he would be let go, but the director and fellow choir members were supportive and encouraging. “This experience proved to be one of the most challenging endeavors I’ve ever undertaken, but ultimately one of the most rewarding,” he wrote, promising it would not be last post-retirement experience outside of his comfort zone.

In “Little Piggy,” Cornue recounts a summer she spent with her aunt and uncle on their farm in Missouri when she was 8-years-old. She did her chores and enjoyed her time there, but was homesick and felt angry. One day she went to the pen where the hogs and sows were and poked at them with long needles she had picked from a tree. “I felt happy trying to hurt the pigs. Yet I also grasped even at that tender age how one could become a bully by wanting to hurt others. This was a life lesson that turned me away from purposeful cruelty, because I knew that I had it in me to be really mean and that it was my choice how I behaved,” she wrote.

In “Marian Anderson and Me,” Toub writes that she was selected to receive the Daughters of the American Revolution Medal for Citizenship and was asked to play the piano at the ceremony, which was a great honor. However, the principal later informed her the honor had been rescinded and was being given to a male student. No longer invited to participate, she wrote that this experience was “my introduction to anti-Semitism.” She likened the event to when the DAR prevented Marian Anderson from performing at a Washington, D.C., concert because she was black, but first lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter. If Anderson could rise above discrimination, so could she, Toub concludes.

In “Inevitably Invisible,” Ehrlichman Woods writes that as people age, they become more invisible in the community. Older Americans lose the color in their hair, are no longer a coveted target audience for advertisers and are taken for granted by politicians. But just because someone gets older doesn’t mean they should be overlooked. “I’m not a hopeless old coot who needs help swiping my bank card, purchasing a book of stamps or pouring my own cup of coffee. You’re making assumptions about me, and you are wrong,” she writes. As a senior, Ehrlichman Woods concludes that she will not fade away.

Dahmen wrote “The Myth of Invincibility,” which received an honorable mention award. Dahmen was 17-years-old and just graduated from high school when he found himself at the funeral of his best friend Bill, who had accidentally fallen out of a tree while working for a landscaping company. He reminisced about how popular his friend had been, the influence he had had in high school and the times they had spent together. Bill was the “coolest guy in the world. We all wanted to be like him,” Dahmen wrote. But reality struck at the funeral and “at that moment the idea of invincibility was exposed for what it was, just a myth.”

In Merritt’s “Summer of ’55,” it was the end of the school year and Merritt’s best friend would be away for the whole summer. To occupy himself, he decided to spy on his neighbor Elizabeth. He watched as she climbed a tree, nestled on a branch and began to read a book. She waved him to come over and sit with her and offered him a book to read, “Penrod,” by Booth Tarkington. As an 11-year-old, he wasn’t fond of reading, but he loved the book. “I spent many days that summer sitting in the tree with the girl who had introduced me to the joy of reading,” he wrote. “Wherever you are Elizabeth, I thank you for inviting me into your summer tree and changing my life.”

In “The Gift,” Putz writes about a day trip her family took with the friends from the hospital where her mother worked as a nurse. “There were families and lots of kids. We played ball together and tag. There was lots of laughter. As an overly-sensitive only child, all I felt was friendship and kindness,” she wrote. “I know that I felt and what I felt was absolute acceptance and true joy. It has been a gift beyond measure.”

“You don’t have to be a professional writer to participate in our Senior Legacies Writing Contest. Our seniors are very talented and they write from the heart,” Essex County Director of Citizen Services Anibal Ramos said. “Every year, I am impressed with the emotion and quality of stories. I congratulate everyone for participating.”