An Odd Theme
I didn't tell anyone ahead of time we were having a telephone theme. I was afraid people would think that sounded a little boring. But I was excited about it.
Focusing on Phones...of the past
My plan was to remember phones. I was eager to see what everyone could recall of the world before cell phones. What are our first phone memories? Who had party lines? What is the best phone call you ever got? Who remembers staying home to wait for a phone call? What do people do while they chat on the phone. What is the best and the most annoying thing about phones? What movies have great phone scenes? Do you remember what phones used to sound like?
Parents on the Phone
I've always loved this photo of my mom talking on her toy phone. It makes me laugh because I have such vivid memories of her as my mother, talking on the phone. Most of those memories are in kitchens in various houses. When I was very small, I watched her as she cooked on the phone, or sat at the kitchen table. I was in awe as she twirled her hair or doodled on paper, while she spoke. I remember being annoyed years later when she endlessly tied up the phone with real estate calls. If we tried to interrupt, she snapped her fingers to show her authority. We kids laughed years later when she got an extra long curly cord for her princess wall phone so she could practically carry the phone with her to the basement or upstairs. I can still visualize that cord snaking around furniture, knocking things off tables and occasionally tripping a person or pet. My dad? He was never on the phone long, but he had and still has an unmistakable Heeeello! that welcomes the caller with enthusiasm.
Answering the Phone
In my different groups we used phone props and shared all the different ways we answer the phone. We laughed to learn Alexander Graham Bell had chosen "Ahoy" as the proper telephone greeting. We played some games trying to guess who was at the other end of the line. We had a few phone performances, like calling Santa with a request, calling the landlord to complain and nervously calling to ask for a date.
We talked about movies with memorable scenes involving telephones. For some reason there are a lot of suspense movies, like Sorry Wrong Number and Dial M for Murder. And then there's the wonderful song from Bye Bye Birdie that involves a dozen giddy teens singing into their colorful phones, sharing the great news that Kim is going steady.
But the favorite for a few of us, was a scene in Meet Me in St. Louis, when a 1904 era family sits around the dinner table listening to the daughters' phone conversation as it becomes clear she is not getting the marriage proposal she expected.
Of course we had to revisit a few childhood games...
...like tin can telephones and the gossip game, "telephone". Both were as silly as I remembered.
We recalled the day when phone booths were available on many a corner. They had doors to block out the sound and sometimes even seats. Phone booths offered protection from the elements... if you needed to change clothes like Superman. I couldn't find anyone in my groups who had participated in the crazy game of squeezing into a phone booth with friends. 22 is the documented record for the number of bodies, completely inside a phone booth. (1959 at St. Mary's College)
There was a day when we used phone books pretty often. We looked up numbers or we "let our fingers do the walking" in the yellow pages. Some of use remembered with guilty smiles, looking up numbers to make prank calls. Of course there were kinder pranks inspired by phone books. My sister and I once found a strangers name and address in the phone book and sent a surprise postcard.
Just looking at the phone book sitting on the quilt was a reminder of lots of other creative phone book uses. None had ever tried tearing the book in half to show their strength, but a few had used the thick book to press flowers. Many of us remembered using the book as a booster seat for kids and one of us smiled and admitted using a phone book in the driver's seat! We talked about how to recycle all that paper. Decoupage, suggested one of my artistic friends...or paper mache. Another suggested using the thin paper like a rag to wash windows. Only one in all my groups shared this memory of using a phone book. "We used to use old phone books and catalogues in our outhouse." We all got a good chuckle with that shared memory!
Kids and Phones
My last stop was with the kids at the Shelter. I kept things simple and only used this one prop. All the kids wanted a turn dialing the phone and pretending to talk. The first child to take a turn, left the receiver on the cradle and approached the dial with both hands. He put one finger in a hole and then asked. "What do I do now?" That made my day!
What did I learn? Adults and kids seem to be equally intrigued by fiddling with a rotary phone. All were surprised to remember or realize how much work it is to dial a number, especially if the number you're calling is made up of high numbers! Everyone sort of enjoyed feeling the weight of the heavy receiver and hearing the noise of the dial and the clunk of hanging up. Phones long ago, didn't do amazing things like give us directions or play music, but there's something about making a call on a big old sturdy desk phone that makes you feel like you're doing something important!
Some themes are worth repeating. Everyone can relate to trains, whether they have stories of traveling on the Orient Express or just memories of watching trains go by. People have emotional connections to trains and even to train tracks. They remind us of people leaving and people arriving, not to mention the adventures of travel. They remind us of lonely whistles in the night and powerful tickity tackity rhythms. Last year I brought in recordings of trains to help spark memories. This year I brought in music about trains and we had some nice musical surprises!
Train Song by California Honeydrops
At the Community Center we always have lots of hands on projects to inspire discussion. So I played my mix of train songs in the background while we worked and chatted.
Before long, a few hands paused and some faces looked up to smile and even sing along. But there was one song none of us recognized. It began with a vocal blasting, "Woowooo!" followed by some addictive 50's style singing and lots of jazzy sax. First I witnessed a few folks twisting in their chairs and before long half the group left the table for an impromptu dance performance which turned into a conga/train line around the tables. It was the funniest, unplanned activity and it left me exhausted and energized at the same time!
Casey Jones sung by Johnny Cash
At the Assisted Living Center I hardly needed music or props to get this group started. We could have easily talked for days about trains. There were memories shared of formal feasts in luxury dining cars and children being afraid of trains... and Mary talked about her husband's work with the Rock Island Line. She reminded us of an old song that I remember Pete Seeger singing....Rock Island Line. But it was Johnny Cash's music that gave us the biggest surprise. (He must have recorded about 20 songs that have to do with trains.) We liked his recording of Casey Jones that started up with an impressive train whistle that made our cozy room echo like a train station. By the time the song ended Claire was smiling with a little surprise trivia. "My husband grew up in Jackson, Tennessee!" She began, reminding us that the lengendary Casey Jones was also from Jackson. "My husband was good friends with the great-great granddaughter of Casey Jones." I love fun connections.
500 Miles sung by the Journeymen
I remember this song making me sad when I was 6 years old. I can picture my family gathered at sunset with some friends at a beach in Staten Island. I can still hear Bill's voice as he strummed his guitar singing, "If you miss the train I'm on, then you will know that I am gone..." Even a 6 year old can understand words that feel lonely. But I mostly remember how the sad melody changed the mood of our usually boisterous group. I've always loved that song, even if it is a sad one. I decided to go ahead and share the song, because sometimes it's good to balance a little of our fun with some more thoughtful moments. So I first played the recording with my group at the Assisted living center. The mood did change as we all sat still to listen. But then I noticed Betty's eyes light up as she softly sang along. When the song ended she smiled with a good memory. "I used to sing that song to my son when I rocked him as a baby!"
Same Song, Another Group
I was eager to see who recognized 500 Hundred Miles at Silverado. I usually try a little harder to keep things upbeat with my folks who have Alzheimer's. You never know what might trigger sadness or anxiety. But I introduced the song carefully and knew I could pull back if needed. "I wonder if you'll remember this...it's sort of sad...but so pretty..." I was only going to play a portion, but the group of 8 became so focused, as if the whole group held their breath at once to listen. "Can't you picture this one being sung around a campfire?" I gently added. I watched a few close their eyes and begin to sway. We listened quietly and the lyrics began to match the soulful melody. "...Lord I can't go home this a-way...You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles." While some hummed or sang a word here and there, the rest of the group swayed with the slow rhythm. When the music ended there were a few sighs. "We sort of looked like we were actually on a train!" I laughed softly to pull us back out of the trance. "Passengers really do sway on a train!" Martha was smiling, but she seemed the most touched by the song. "I feel that music right here." She said as she placed her hand over her heart. We spoke just a bit about the emotion of the song...just enough. Then I switched gears and said I had a train song to make them smile!
Chattanooga Choo Choo
The Andrew Sisters
This was the best train song of them all to lift the spirits! There's a pretty big intro before the singing begins, so it was fun to watch faces trying to recognize the piece. But as soon as the Andrews Sister began, "Pardon me boys..." faces lit up and everyone at least attempted to sing along! This song was a favorite at the skilled nursing facility, too. The quilt may have been surrounded by wheelchairs, but the minds were alert and the stories were flying. I loved seeing my dear friend Ken sing along with this song. He's told me before how much he loved dancing back in the days when he was in the service. The wheelchair barely slowed him down.
Do Re Mi by Woody Guthrie
Guthrie wrote a lot of his songs while riding the rails during the dust bowl era. There are a few versions of this one, but the one I love best is a scratchy recording that uses harmonica and guitar. The words remind us that when the train reaches California, it's not going to be the Promised Land we expected if we "Ain't got the do re mi." But it's the end of the piece that had all my groups mesmerized as they listened to the harmonica create the wailing whistle sound and then the rhythmic train motion increasing with speed.
Harmonica, sounding like a train: http://www.bluesharmonica.com/last_train_chug
Train is A-Comin'
This song which was once an old spiritual, was the best way to end my train theme on the very last day. Since we had already lingered around the quilt talking about places we'd like to visit on a train trip, we used this song with our own voices to imagine all the wonderful stops our train would make on our group journey. First I just sang a few phrases, "Train is a-comin', oh yeah. Train is a-comin', oh yeah..." All the repetition makes it about the world's easiest song to sing along with, so pretty soon everyone had their own chance to change the words with their favorite destination. We had, "We're goin' to Mississippi, oh yeah. Goin' to Mississippi, oh yeah..." And we had a story or two about why certain destinations had been picked. Ken didn't make it easy for us, since he chose Niagara Falls. Our song got a little sloppy when we tried to fit that into the rhythm, but it was worth it when he explained why he chose Niagara Falls. "My wife and I headed to Niagara Falls by train for our honeymoon many years ago!" We ended our group that day with the rest of the story...how Ken left his bride on the train to run into the station for coffee and sandwiches only to race out to see the train pulling off..."
What I Learned: I learned that even in 2013, trains have a power that I can't explain. They have the ability to make us stop our busy lives when we sit in our cars waiting for them to pass. And they have the ability to capture our hearts with nostalgic stories and images. I love trains.
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.