Women, writers

My grandma told me about some writing her mother has been doing. My nanny, Laura Irene Gilbert, lives independently in a small house on a grassy hill in South Carolina. She will be 93 years old in a few weeks.

MEMORIES

by Laura I Gilbert

Beginning with my first day of school a five year old lad from Brooklyn—timid, frighten, cried most every day for 1 year.

A family of nine, six girls and three boys. Out of nine, I was the “tomboy” climbing trees, etc.

I only knew my ABC’s—I realized I had to do like the others. My teacher would let me sit on her lap as she taught the class. She held up words on cardboard. I’d cry, but all the time I would pay attention. There was 1st grade and high first. I made both grades in one year.

I walked about two miles to school. One morning as I was walking to school I was bitten by a dog. At that time, I had to take 20 shots because the dog had rabies. I didn’t want any more shots—This was the day the nurse came to the school to give shots. I jumped out the window and ran home.

It was time to grow up—I was nine when I gave my heart to the Lord. I began to think more about what God would have me do. Time passed, I done work for the sick, writing and doing plays at church, always trying to help someone.

I finished 7th grade with valedictorian from my class. After entering high school there were only 9 grades (8 to 11). I began to think of college, only never had money. In the meantime God had called me to the mission field. I went to my Mom and told her the story—“that I wanted to live with my aunt, get a job, save my money and obey God.” She said “No girls of mine leaves home until they are married”. So I didn’t even confront my Dad. We had always obeyed our parents.

I kept working in homes, helping them walk, feeding,exercising. Whatever was needed, I was happy doing!

My Dad had passed away in 1937. In 1938 I was married—It so happened the first house we lived in was a lady dying of cancer. I took care of her until she passed away–to me that was mission work.

So I’m still happy in the Lord doing what he has asked me to do here on earth.

April 2012

I consider this work art. Its not necessarily art that will or even should be viewed by an “audience”. However I think this type of art making serves a purpose. On the level of the individual, making art helps a person to sort out their thoughts about something, it can quiet or focus them. For me dance making is a way to investigate things personal to me. At the same time this personal art seems useful to a supporting structure, like a family for example, that can enjoy the art, connect to it easily, and learn about the individual that made it and in some cases about themselves.

I can remember my Nanny, my father’s, father’s mother, reading poetry she had written at Christmas parties. The family would gather and she would proudly recite rhymes about family and God. This wasn’t masterful poetry, but it was important to our family.

I am curious if this sort of personal art making will continue in my family. I can imagine my grandmother’s generation wrote poetry in their free time as a way to occupy, enjoy and challenge themselves. Today my cousins tend to choose apps on their iphones to fill those needs. I wonder how many non-professional artists make art without instruction these days. Its seems art making is treated as a luxury reserved for children, students and those that strive to get paid for their talents. I think that art has been and could be an important facet, if not integral, to building stronger, more connected families.

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April 29th

SISTERS

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my sisters. They are the one familial relation that I do not descend from in any sort of genetic way. Instead we exist in sequence, with each other and not because of each other. And yet my sense of self is very tied to my relationship with my two sisters. Sometimes I think we define each other, in that we have become what the others are not.

Though overlap in our personalities certainly exists, we bring different things to the table. I am excitable, while my sister Molly has always been mellow. K.C. is solid and sturdy, opposing my fluidity and flexibility. Together we form our own ecosystem.

We all have input into this microenvironment. Even though I’m the oldest I sense that their existence accounts for parts of my personality and personal history that are integral to who I am today, just as their contributions to the making of the newest movement additions to this project, feel integral to what this project is and might become.

My grandmother on my Dad’s side, who I call Grams, recently told me about her older sister. It was another example of a story completely unknown to me to come out of the woodwork during a fleeting moment of storytelling.

In the car on the way to a special birthday lunch my Grams responded to my talking about wanting to visit California with a recollection of the time her mother and father had lived in California. She offered that soon after they’d moved out to California they moved away because my Granny (Gram’s mother) had lost a child a few days after giving birth. The memory was too great for them to bare.

They moved back to South Carolina and not too long after had my grandmother. The conversation switched to groceries or something mundane soon after. I felt disoriented by this seemingly huge chunk of history that I’d never heard, another reminder of how much of the history of people in my family, especially women’s history I don’t and will never know.

Months later I asked my grandmother if she wouldn’t mind telling me a little more about her big sister. I asked how she had found out about her. She remarked that there wasn’t some big revelation or heart to heart. There wasn’t anything secretive around it. She could remember visiting her “baby” sister’s grave from the time she was ten and throughout her growing up years.

I wonder how the unlived life of her sister, might have impacted the woman my Grams is today. What if she were not the oldest in her family, but the youngest? And further, I wonder how growing up aware of a sister she never knew has affected her.

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All this thinking and musing about sisters undoubtedly affected a recent realization that I should include my sisters in the process of the latest iteration of “Clementine”. Part of my goal for this project was to create a duet section. It made sense that my partner be someone invested in the story of my great-grandmother, and the stories of other women in my family. I felt that only another family member could truly bring the experience and investment into our personal family history that seemed necessary to performing this dance. My sister Molly became a logical candidate for my dance partner.

At the same time I felt drawn to including both my sisters in the creative process surrounding this dance. Saturday was the first of what I hope will be many more art making experiences with my sisters. We worked intensively for the afternoon to generate new material in the form of movement and text.

Both my sisters have some experience with dance from when they were little and both have experience with creative writing in school settings. We began by creating text. The three of us produced “I come from” texts, in an exercise that replicated text making I had engaged in earlier in this process. We also created a text about road trips by splicing together an original writing by K.C. with some of Molly’s and my other writings.

From these texts we worked on abstracting words into movements. I was surprised by the movements my sisters created. They were decidedly non-literal representations and spoke to big picture themes, emotions and memories the individual words brought up for them. After a new set of movements was created by each individual, we would take turns teaching one another to embody the material we made. This process felt very organic and led to the choreographing of a duet section between Molly and myself.

For now I will use the texts and movement created as I continue to explore on my own. I plan to have at least one more intensive in order to revisit, edit and incorporate the material generated by my sisters in the piece as it will be performed on May 11th.

I come from…

Last year in a class for future resident assistants (a position I didn’t end up accepting), I was given the task to write on the theme “I come from…” I was so intrigued and enamored with the responses from my classmates that later that night I wrote a journal entry about the experience and expanded on my own writing. Around the same time I began working on Clementine. It makes sense that the seeds of that initial writing showed up in the text of my solo.

I am from white on white on a picturesque scene of blue, yellow and green. And purple mountains that spring up to protect us from the real world. I’m from praying in school and a zero tolerance for bullies and for gays. I’m from a quiet family of farmers and blue collar grandparents. Of alcoholic fathers, uncles, grandfathers, great grandfathers…Of men who were told they could have it all and women who sacrificed everything. Of children who were really parents who squandered everything and still do. I’m from a house of laughing but also screaming and so much crying and a mother whom I fear becoming. I’m from the dirty floors of a dance studio where I spent most of my life learning how to move and how to live, where I never quite belonged but didn’t know where else to go. I’m from a lot I’m not proud of and a few places I am. The question is where am I going?

 

In the solo I mention where Clementine comes from geographically, Pisek, North Dakota,  and later that I come from her. I recently discovered, via wikipedia search, that Pisek is a tiny .1 square mile town in Walsh County, North Dakota. It was originally settled by what the article calls “Bohemian” Czech settlers in 1882. Though I don’t know for sure, I can’t help but think one of those settlers must have been “little grandpa”, Clementine’s Grandfather. Pisek is the name of a czech town, presumably where the settlers came from. It means sand, fitting because of a nearby sand ridge.

I’m interested in the connections and intersections between my history, the histories of women in my family, and place and time. I’m considering using video footage I’ve taken of specific places and using newly discovered information about my great grandmother’s hometown to explore this connection…

I didn’t know…

I still vividly remember the long car rides up to Minnesota my family made nearly every other summer of my childhood. As we drove those long Midwest highways, the anticipation of seeing my Minnesota family would amass. The first stop was usually my Nanny and Bumpy’s house, just outside of St. Cloud, MN. We’d visit for the whole day in that cramped little house. Family member, after six foot, family member, would duck through the back door, just to say hello.

My Nanny is my mother’s grandmother. She grew up in Peasock, North Dakota, one of eight children born to a Midwest farmer and paraplegic, Czechoslovakian, immigrant. I know this because of the stories Nanny would tell, as children, grandchildren and great grandchildren gathered around that light oak table, in her sunny, yellow dining room.

The Clementine Project is homage of sorts, to the amazing woman behind those stories, as well as the stories themselves. Story telling is an age-old tradition, especially among women (mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers). Because they were often denied access to education, oral tradition was the most accessible way for women to communicate, teach one another, and share their experiences.

The Clementine Project began my junior year at the University of Maryland as a dance piece based on a recording of my Nanny telling the story of how she met my Bumpy. This was a special story; it was not her usual epic tale of life on a rugged mid west farm. Nor was it a cute recollection of children long grown up. This was a story about Clementine Antoinette Robinson. She was a woman with doubts, hopes and fears. She dared to love again, when she had been beaten and abandoned with her two children as a twenty-something year old woman in the 1920s.

As I developed a dance around this story one phrase kept cropping up, “I didn’t know”. In addition to becoming a central statement I repeated in the performance, “I didn’t know” reflected my lack of knowledge about the realities of my great grandmother’s life. The Clementine Project was generated by my thirst for more knowledge about the intimate realities of my great-grandmother’s life.

The Clementine Project is about revitalizing the tradition of story telling among women. Through interviews with women in my family, I will explore my personal matrilineage and seek to discover what women can learn from sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

The dance work created will utilize original movement and text in the tradition of dance theatre.  A challenge will be to present not only the stories of the women I speak with, but to examine the mode of the oral tradition through multimedia dance work. Video and audio footage will be integrated with live story telling, to create an atmosphere where story and storyteller coexist.