Laura Mitchell Keene and I met at church many years ago. She read stories in Sunday school when my boys were small, and attended a women’s writing group there, making insightful and encouraging comments. When the group disbanded two years ago, we decided to meet together at her home.
A tiny African American woman with close cropped white hair, she would greet me at the door of the house she’d built with her husband, fine artist Paul Keene, and where she’d lived alone since his death in 2009. She showed me family photos under a glass table top, her husband’s art on the walls, and in a stairwell, a poster of her great grandfather, Pierre Burr, a descendant of Aaron Burr and his East Indian servant.
It didn’t take me long to realize that this woman was a curator of her life and times. Born in 1925, she has lived through Jim Crow, racial segregation, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the civil rights movement and the second wave of feminism. Her life spans the twentieth century in America, France and Haiti, where she traveled with her artist husband.
When I proposed we gather her stories into a booklet for her family, she said, “That would be nice.” She had her own back-of-the-bus story, grew up in the A.M.E. community in Philadelphia, and earned a nursing degree at Howard University. We had some wonderful times writing together in her living room, but after two years, I noticed the stories were repeating. Her mind wandered, and I knew it was time to gather what we had and get it printed.
Since I teach and volunteer at the Pearl Buck Historic House in Dublin, PA, I asked the director of their Writing Center for advice. Much to my surprise, she arranged a meeting with all three of their editors who said they wanted to publish Laura’s memoir via CreateSpace. All I had to do was get it to them in a Word document with a few photos. Her two adult children reviewed the proof copy and filled in some dates and details. The whole process took about a year, and we had the first printing of 50 copies in our hands at the start of this past October. It sold out, and we had to order another 50!
We held two signings: one at a Pearl Buck Volunteer Association luncheon, and another at our church. Her far-flung family is buying the books through Amazon and sending her photos of themselves reading it. “I never knew this about Grandma,” her granddaughter reported, in tears.
“Who would want to read my story?” Laura kept asking. She was always the “wife of the artist,” in the shadow of his spotlight, yet she herself earned a master’s degree in education, raised two children with good humor in a racist society, and is now the great grandmother of three. I’m so pleased I helped her tell her story.
Linda Wisniewski shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband in Bucks County, where she writes for two local newspapers. Her work has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Sun, Massage, gravel, the Christian Science Monitor, The Quilter and many other places both print and online. Linda volunteers as a docent at the Pearl Buck Historic House and teaches memoir workshops at their Writing Center. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. For more information, see her website.