Ellen Gilman, author of “The Home,” at Shakespeare & Co. in front of the Expresso Book Machine. Photo: Caley Pigliucci
“I loved Mount Zion Home for the Elderly, dream of being back there almost nightly ... and pray I’ll never have to live there,” writes Ellen Gilman in the opening chapter of “The Home.”
Gilman’s self-published memoir has mobsters, a Nobel Prize winner and a graffiti list of the dead sprayed down the side of a Bronx tenement. Living and working with staff and residents for over twenty years as an art specialist at the retirement home gave Gilman a unique view into the personal lives and drama of the staff and residents.
Gilman has lived for over 50 years on the Upper West Side. She’s a theater buff and now has some time to enjoy this hobby. She’s been primarily focused on the memoir this year, though last month she had a gallery showing on 57th Street.
Gilman will be reading passages from “The Home” on Thursday, March 28th at 7 p.m. at the new Shakespeare and Company on 2020 Broadway between 69th and 70th Streets. There will be a book signing as well, and the event is free and open to the public.First things first: Where can people buy your book?
“The Home” will is available at any Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and also online at Bit.ly/GilmanTheHome. Signed copies will be available on March 28th at 7 p.m. at the new Shakespeare and Company on 2020 Broadway between 69th and 70th Streets.What made you decide to write this memoir?
I’ve always loved to write, however my primary focus was writing for the theater. I grew up in a very creative family. Both my parents were artists, and my father started his career as a ballet dancer. Someone was always doing artwork or sharing poetry or discussing either or both. I remember resenting the long visits to the Museum of Modern Art. Who cared about staring at Kandinskys?
I went to New York City’s High School of Performing Arts on West 46th where I majored in drama. I earned a B.A. in literature from Grinnell College, then a master’s degree in theatre at Smith College. Along the way I was fortunate to receive a few awards for my fiction and poetry and also the Guthrie McClintic-Katharine Cornell Award for Creative Writing in Theatre. I’ve continued to write and perform, so creating a memoir was a natural extension of those skills.How did you make the transition from a career in teaching young students to being an art specialist in a long term health facility?
My grandmother lived with us when we were growing up, and it was this relationship, this love, that helped me through my childhood and when I went off to college. She and I shared a room, and every night I watched as this stern matriarch disrobed, took off all her corsets and confinements and finally her false teeth, and then, half-ashamedly showed me who she really was. Then I would give her a warm hug and kiss goodnight.
I knew I would care about the people in the facility, just as I cared about my grandmother.Many readers are interested in the process of writing a memoir. How did you retell stories that could be slightly vague in your own memory, and how do you recreate a story without all the exact details?
In the beginning of the book I explained that this memoir is a filtered memory, as all memories are. I’ve taken situations that happened frequently and created composites at times.Can you offer any advice on how to treat people’s privacy and also avoid hurt feelings?
Every name has been changed, and even their extended family number has been altered, to prevent a breach of privacy.If you could have done something differently when you began writing this memoir, what would it be?
Originally I wrote this as a play, and working my way through the process came to realize that was more easily expressed as a book, giving me greater freedom to express more places, people and situations.How would you sum up working for twenty years in a nursing home?
I think my book says it best: “Oh God,” my family and friends used to say to me, “Don’t you find it depressing to work there — all those sick old people and people dying all the time?
I’d try to explain that, no, I didn’t find it depressing. It was exciting. It felt like a very important place to be. It was a privilege to be with the elders at that time of their lives. They were the surviving heroes and they were, or should have been, the keepers of history and of mystery. To be of service to them made me feel both humble and proud and I felt brave and powerful. I was in a place — a nursing home — that so many people were terrified to enter, even to briefly visit people they knew and loved.
For so many people it was like having to look into an open coffin, getting a giant whiff of mortality, a head-on collision into what awaits. For me it was something like walking into the lion’s cage.
I’m here to encourage people, to enliven them, to sustain or raise their life condition and because they’re mature, they have the ability to immediately express their appreciation.