CEDAR GROVE, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and the Division of Senior Services announced the four winners and four honorable mention recipients of the 2022 Essex County Senior Citizen Legacies Writing Contest during an awards luncheon at the Robert O’Toole Community Center in Cedar Grove Park. The Legacies Writing Contest encourages area 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 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.”
This year’s contest winners are Newark resident Maryam Bey, who wrote “Experience is the Best Teacher”; Livingston resident Susan Levine, who wrote “Finding My Way Through the Woods”; Bloomfield resident Joseph L. Monzione, who wrote “Lunch with Mrs. Roberts”; and Irvington resident Ruth C. Steele, who wrote “Not College Material.” Receiving honorable mentions were Maplewood resident Marie Walton-Jackson, who wrote “Reflections”; East Orange resident Carol T. Jenkins, who wrote “My Little Blue Bank Book”; Nutley resident Rosemary Valese, who wrote “Cabbage Patch Doll Blessings”; and Bloomfield resident Paula R. Zaccone, who wrote “The Medical Menace.”
In her story, Bey wrote that just because someone ages and gets older does not mean they have to retire. Bey opened a licensed day care center when she was 24 years old and closed it 10 years later. She went to school and earned two degrees, graduating when she was 46 years old, then worked as a government aide. Currently she works with inmates who are preparing to reenter the workforce after being released. “Why would I retire when the Creator has blessed me with so much wisdom based on my life experiences, trauma, tragedies, successes, victories and education?” she wrote. “It was given to me for a reason: to inspire and encourage young people. … As seniors, everything we’ve been through prepared us for our purpose.”
In her essay, Levine shares how the COVID-19 pandemic changed her life. No longer traveling to visit family, she now keeps in touch with relatives via Zoom or other computer apps. She and her husband eat out less frequently and cook at home more. Levine also has altered her exercise routine by taking more adventurous walks along nature trails instead of at the local track. “Someday, I hope this will end and life can resume with some semblance of normalcy. But, despite all, there have been a few silver linings,” she wrote.
Monzione wrote about a former mentor. After graduate school, Monzione took a job with the NJ Commission for the Blind, where his supervisor was Edna Roberts. On his first day of work, they went out to lunch so they could get to know each other better. Monzione immediately was impressed with his supervisor’s passion for her job and the close relationships she had developed with the commission’s clients. A few years after Roberts retired, he was in the midst of planning to have lunch with his former supervisor when she died. Monzione still has regrets for not staying in touch and continuing their friendship. “I promised myself that going forward I would never delay telling the people I care about how grateful I am to have them in my life,” he wrote.
In her piece, Steele describes the effect teachers and mentors have on youth. While attending eighth grade at Madison School, Steele’s teacher remarked that she was “not college material” and should reconsider her plan to take college prep classes. This greatly affected Steele because she respected her teacher and his opinion. With her high school years coinciding with the civil rights movement, Steele realized her eighth-grade teacher’s assessment was wrong and that she had been affected by systemic racism, and she began to strive for more. Instead of just wanting to attain a high school diploma, she set her sights on going to college. “I am extremely grateful for those who inspired me to be persistent, to know my worth,” she wrote about the teachers she had in high school who were more supportive.
In her piece, Walton-Jackson reflects on the challenges she had to overcome to receive an education. Public schools in Prince Edward County, Va., chose to close in 1959 rather than integrate white and black students. It was the only place in the United States that did not abide by the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. To complete her high school education, Walton-Jackson was sent to Kittrell College, an African Methodist Episcopal school in North Carolina. Away from her family, she became homesick and experienced bigotry. “I believe that life’s journey with its twists and turns sets your core values and makes you the person that you are today,” she wrote. Although she did not pursue her dream of becoming a math teacher, she did have a successful career in the financial industry.
Jenkins recalled in her story saving money as a child. Every Friday, a representative from the Howard Savings Bank would come to Jenkins’ elementary school and accept deposits from the students for their savings accounts and teach them about the importance of saving money. Jenkins’ grandfather would give her a quarter to make her deposit. Because she had been so responsible in depositing her money, her grandfather gave her two quarters at the end of the year: one for Christmas and one for her birthday, which is Dec. 24. She was proud to have earned the extra quarter and by then had saved $5.
Valese’s story tells a touching story about kindness. When Valese was working at Romance Emporium in Clifton during the 1980s, Cabbage Patch dolls were popular. One day a family whose daughter needed brain surgery came to the store and the child wanted a Cabbage Patch doll. Valese was so touched, she offered to buy the 8-year-old whatever dolls and accessories she wanted. Soon, the other salespeople had taken up a collection and raised $500 for the young girl. Unfortunately, the girl did not live long after having the surgery. Despite this, Valese felt good knowing that the young girl enjoyed her final wish of having a Cabbage Patch doll.
Through poetry, Zaccone tells her story of getting a colonoscopy and not having faith in her doctor or the hospital. Several days after getting the procedure, she was not feeling well and went to the hospital; the doctors there told her not to worry. When her symptoms worsened, she went to a different hospital, where she was admitted into the intensive care unit for several days and was told she had internal bleeding and was anemic. “For wellness, be thoroughly informed and on guard, / Even when being treated by a practitioner who is alleged to be of high regard. / It took a third set of nurses and physicians, and a second hospital to result in my benefit, / And I am forever grateful that I survived to tell of it,” she wrote.
During the ceremony, the winning stories were read by Essex County West Caldwell School of Technology students Lucia Nufio, Roselyn Ramos-Guzman, Corey Newman and Liana Figueroa.
Photos, courtesy of Glen Frieson, show honorees, second from left, being honored by, from left, Gloria Chambers-Benoit from the Essex County Division of Senior Services, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and Senior Services Director Maurice Brown.