Sandel Center seniors share life’s ‘aha moments’ at storytelling finale


“It was lace,” recalled Claire Kirkwood. “It lifted me up, it pushed me in, and it had long garters to hold up my long black stockings. When I put it on, I thought I was a Playboy Bunny.”

Kirkwood, a member of Rockville Centre’s Sandel Senior Center, was one of 11 speakers to share stories during a performance on April 15 that followed a five-week storytelling workshop, led by award-winning storyteller Tracey Segarra.

Segarra, of Hewlett, began listening to the Moth Radio Hour on National Public Radio and has won three Moth StorySLAMs since 2015. She shared techniques and advice to the local seniors throughout the workshop to help them uncover their own stories.

Kirkwood kicked off the evening, telling of her trip to meet her husband, John, in Europe in the 1950s, when he was serving in the Army of Occupation in Germany. She put the black lingerie under her clothes, she recalled, quickly realizing the discomfort it caused. She got them off in the plane’s bathroom “with gyrations worthy of an Olympic gymnast.”

As the plane refueled, she left her things on the aircraft and explored the Frankfurt airport, only to learn she had to switch planes. Attendants brought down belongings for passengers to claim, eventually holding up the lingerie.

“The garters were floating in the breeze,” she said as the Sandel crowd of about 50 chuckled. “The women were laughing and the men were whistling and making lewd remarks. I could not claim that thing.” Though upset, she was reunited with her “young paratrooper” husband, who lifted her spirits to make her feel like a princess, “and he’s made me feel like that most of the days of our lives,” she said.

Lilly Carroll shared her story about the time an unknown man climbed the fire escape of her apartment in Woodside, Queens in 1976 and ended up in her daughters’ bedroom. Her oldest daughter, Almarie Kralstein, who attended the storytelling event, ran to tell her mother about the intruder.

“I didn’t know what was behind that door,” Carroll said. “That was the scariest moment of my life.” Almarie, 16 at the time, armed with a knife, stood by her side as they went into the room, where her 11-year-old daughter was still sleeping. The three of them worked together to eventually oust the man, who appeared to be drunk and claimed he had come in by mistake.

A single mother guilty that her children had to endure the effects of a bad divorce, Carroll said the incident that night was a turning point of sorts for her family. “She said, ‘Ma, I couldn’t let you go in there alone,” Carroll recalled Almarie telling her. “. . . It was such a relief that this man was gone. In that moment, I realized how much my two daughters loved me.”

Joan Hines turned the clock back to when she and her husband were 18. She was giving birth to a son at Mercy Medical Center on a cold February evening. “How in the world can an act that was so erotic, so wonderful, so loving, so satisfying cause this pain?” she said. “God, if you let me get rid of this pain, I swear I will never have sex again.”

That was a promise she would break, Hines said, as listeners cackled.

Others also told stories of long ago, like Howard Pivnick, who, as a member of the U.S. Army serving in Germany in 1955, traveled around Europe with some of his fellow service members, ending up in the Netherlands at a performance of Porgy and Bess. Surrounded by guests in gowns and tuxedos — and Queen Juliana — he and his buddy sat at the national theater in Khakis, standing out in the crowd. Still, they had a merry time and even snuck backstage to grace one of the actors with a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes.

But a story with one of the most powerful messages came from a more recent experience. In 2013, Ronna Weiss traveled with her husband, Paul, to Custer, South Dakota, excited to explore the area’s national parks. Learning of a government shutdown on their way, they worked around the national park closures by visiting a state park. But over the next few days, an unexpected October blizzard left them stranded at their bed and breakfast. Their son-in-law then called to tell them that their daughter, who had recently given birth, was suffering from postpartum depression. Unable to go home because of the weather, the news officially turned their getaway into “the vacation from hell,” Weiss recounted.

She and Paul were stuck with the inn’s other patrons from Texas, Tennessee and Alabama, who she previously explained they, as New Yorkers, believed they could not relate to. She shared the news with them when one asked why they had not joined them for breakfast. She then frustratingly told them more. “And by the way, we’re Jewish, my son-in-law is Catholic and half-Korean,” she said, “and oh yeah, we have another daughter. She became engaged to her girlfriend the night before we arrived here.

“There was absolute jaw-dropping, bug-eyed silence,” Weiss continued. “Every eye was on me.”

But then the fellow travelers began telling her about their own lives, she said.

One man’s daughter-in-law had trouble conceiving, and so she and her husband adopted a Korean baby. One of the women had lupus and was running out of medication that day, unsure what to do. Another woman introduced them to her second husband, noting that her first husband was a drunk. Finally, another shared that her niece had just endured postpartum depression.

They all talked for hours.

“All the masks were gone,” Weiss said. “All pretentions were gone. All the superficiality was gone, and it was clear that no matter where you hail from, whether it’s the big city or the ’burbs, or out in the boonies, we all share the same human condition.”

Such a lesson can change a perspective on life.

“That’s what storytelling is about,” Segarra said at the event. “It’s about having that aha moment where they were one person when the story began, something happened, and by the end of the story they were somehow changed.”