A Woman of Worth: Laura Mitchell Keene

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.

17 responses to “A Woman of Worth: Laura Mitchell Keene

  1. What an amazing story! Love that you encouraged Laura to tell her story and we all share in the joy of her family and friends in knowing her story.
    Thank you!

  2. Linda, such a gorgeous story this is. I’ve shared it on my blog for my writing friends to share also. As I teach my writing workshops, I hear similar thoughts from women who wonder why anyone would want to read their stories. I’ll be printing this out and sharing it in my classes, as well! What a gift from you to Laura, her family, and to the rest of us. Sending a hug!

  3. And now I know what to give my 101 year old mother for Christmas, from my sisters and me. For years she has been scribbling on scraps of paper, in spiral notebooks (a page or two in one, a page in another…found all over her house), and most recently recording in her wobbly voice, her story and her mother’s before her. She says she promised her mother on her death bed at age 99 that she would honor her difficult life by writing it down. (I don’t know if that is true or not.) My sister has transcribed some of the tapes–tedious. I will get them in presentable condition to show her our good faith intent to fulfill her “promise.” It won’t be perfect, time is short, but a start. Thank you!

    • Wow, so happy to read this! Laura’s story was on bits of paper, notebooks, etc. That’s what editors are for. 😉 And I’m glad you’re going with the less than perfect so she’ll know her story will be told.

  4. Linda, your work with this amazing woman not only honors her and helps her family and community understand and appreciate the full scope of her life, it inspires the rest of us. Thank you, thank you!–Susan Wittig Albert, for SCN

  5. This blog earned a Bean Pat as blog pick of the day. Check it out at http://patbean.wordpress.com

  6. Linda, I’m so impressed. I don’t know how you find the time to get so much done, but WTG!

  7. This is a heart-warming post about community. Thank you.

  8. Linda, this is SO good. So very, very good! Thank you for adding to a life, a family, history, society, and our culture.

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