Sharing a Life
Journaling Is a Therapeutic Exercise for All Involved
Lisa Berezin acknowledged she was moving out of her comfort zone.
“Completely out of my comfort zone,” actually.
Indeed, she had never done anything remotely like the assignment she agreed to take on. But when her good friend, Susan Jaye Kaplan, asks for help with something, it is her policy to say ‘yes.’
In this case, she was agreeing to a request to create a journal chronicling the life and times of one of the residents at Ruth’s House, an assisted-living facility in Longmeadow. For Berezin, who earned a degree in elementary education before segueing into business, and someone who had volunteered mostly with young people, this was a going to be an exercise in learning while doing, but she was willing and able.
So was John Scalia, a 64-year-old resident whose life has been dominated by four passions — his family, his friends, his love of music (especially doo-wop), and an obsession with the New York Yankees. Family comes first; after that, it’s a toss-up between the other three.
The journal makes that clear.
While Berezin fashioned a cloth cover for Scalia’s journal, one dominated by Yankees logos and pennants, his large family is arguably the focal point of this document. It is dedicated to his mother, Lucy; father, Joseph Sr.; brother, Joseph; and sister-in-law, Michelle with a note expressing that he wouldn’t be where he is today without them.
“The process itself works different parts of the brain — the memory part and the creative part can be very healing if you have any conflicts or things you need to resolve as you’re speaking them out, working them out … it can be very healing in that way.”
Capturing passions and letting others know all the many moments and memories that go into a life is just one of the broad goals behind journaling and this particular project, said Kaplan, known to many in this region as the founder of the nonprofits Go FIT and Link to Libraries.
Others include a desire to have the subjects of these documents open up to people, exercise their memory, and simply talk about what is important to them.
“The process itself works different parts of the brain — the memory part and the creative part can be very healing if you have any conflicts or things you need to resolve as you’re speaking them out, working them out … it can be very healing in that way,” she said. “John was very excited to share his memories, and I think he was so happy to be part of this project and have someone who really and truly cared and listened, and asked questions back. And what made John happy was so contagious for me; John’s like a happy pill for me.”
As for John, he said this was a fun experience, one in which Berezin’s questions, and prompting, brought back many great memories and made him even more appreciative of all that he’s been able to experience. “She asked all the right questions, and I tried to answer as best I could,” he said, noting that he moved to Ruth’s House with his mother several years ago and helped take of her until she died shortly after they arrived there.
Kaplan’s husband, Steve, is a resident of Ruth’s House, now four years into a courageous battle against brain cancer. And it was while creating a journal for Steve — an eye-opening experience on many levels, she said — that she decided that more people should be sharing in the process of creating these living documents — and enjoying the final product.
So she put out a call for volunteers on Facebook, and eventually saw more than a half-dozen area residents, including Berezin, sign up to be part of this initiative.
Most of the journals are still works in progress, she said, adding that the work to compile them is as important as the final document.
It is here where the resident and the volunteer meet several times over the course of a few months to talk, learn about each other, and, most importantly, forge a friendship, said Delila Jones, Life Enrichment director at Ruth’s House, adding that, in a word, journaling is therapeutic for all those involved.
“Journaling is about voicing yourself — your identity, your mind, your heart — and just giving it a voice,” she explained. “Journaling is bringing it out of your mind and putting it down on paper.”
Berezin agreed, noting that, because of the journaling project, she has made a friend in John, and has also become committed to Ruth’s House and its patients. Indeed, she now volunteers for Wednesday trivia and other programs, and volunteered her husband, Mark, a pianist, to play on Fridays at the facility. And he, in turn, volunteered Lisa to lead a sing-along.
That’s one example of how journaling has not only enabled someone to become involved in telling a life’s story, but become more involved in the lives of others in general.
And that’s a big part of what this project is all about.
Pride in the Yankees
As she put her journal of Scalia’s life together, Berezin used words, pictures, and even some numbers, such as $12.6 million.
That’s the amount a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card fetched at an auction several years ago, making the card the most valuable sports collectible in the world.
Mantle has always been one of Scalia’s favorite Yankee players, as is the case with many who grew up when he did. Others include Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly, and, more recently, Aaron Judge.
These insights are a few of the many references to the Yankees in this journal. Others include everything from Scalia’s bobblehead collection to his recollections of five-time Yankee manager Billy Martin, to memories of visits to both the old and new Yankee Stadiums.
“He’s the biggest Yankees fan you’ll ever meet,” Berezin told BusinessWest. “He can tell you what positions people played, what years, who their managers were … and on and on.”
These many and different references to the Bronx Bombers help explain how the journaling exercise yields what could be called the ‘essence’ of a person, said Berezin, adding that what came through with Scalia were both general themes — family, the Yankees, and doo-wop — and small bits of information that, together, tell a story.
In Scalia’s case, these small but significant bits include the fact that he worked at Stop & Shop in Enfield for 40 years — and wasn’t particularly thrilled with the company when it didn’t recognize his four decades of service. And the fact that he met Whitey Ford at the store one day — the Yankee legend pulled up in a limo — and got his autograph.
They also include his fondness for Mel’s Diner in Naples, Fla. and its barbecue ribs, as well as the long list of TV shows he has enjoyed over the decades, from Leave It to Beaver to the original Charlie’s Angels (yes, he had that iconic Farrah Fawcett poster on the wall in his bedroom when he was young), to a slew of cop shows including Columbo, Kojak, and Police Woman.
They also include memories of his grandmother, who would pick grapes off the vine and grind them up to make wine, and his mother, who would discipline him by saying simply, “wait ’til your father gets home.”
Summoning such memories — and Scalia has many of them, not just of his mother and grandmother, but also his Uncle Tony, a restaurant owner, and his Aunt Louise and Aunt Ann — is why journaling is such good therapy for those taking part in this exercise, Jones said.
“It’s important for the senior to participate in this because it’s giving them a voice — the opportunity to share who they are, their situation, what they grew up with … sharing their life,” she said. “For the person who facilitates this … they’re giving us access to another world, another perspective, another vision. It’s like reading a book; it’s like listening to another life and gaining a perspective that’s not yours, and that’s a privilege, because humans need to see beyond themselves, and this provides that opportunity.”
Kaplan agreed. She said she created a journal for a Ruth’s House resident more than 20 years ago, an experience that opened her eyes to the importance, and value, of such an experience.
“I didn’t know the resident very well; I just knew the family,” she recalled. “The family was on vacation. I brought a notebook with me and started asking some simple questions, and it opened a flood of memories, everything from where she grew up as a child to who her siblings were and what she remembered about growing up with them.
“I was amazed; she had beautiful stories to share — some happy, some not so happy,” Kaplan went on. “And she was willing to open up to me, a virtual stranger. She was so delighted to share a little about herself, and I found it was a win-win for me as well because I gained a wealth of knowledge about so many things and learned about this remarkable woman.”
Rob Whitten, president of JGS Lifecare, said this journaling project has yielded learning experiences on many levels.
“This is a program that opens people up and allows them to make connections that they otherwise might not have made,” he told BusinessWest. “JGS Lifecare has always had a strong track record for volunteer engagement, and this is just another example of this; it’s a wonderful program that is really by volunteers and family members … and it connects people together.”
The Last Word
Berezin said she received a wonderful and very sincere thank-you note from Scalia’s family after she presented him — and them — with the journal.
She was touched by the gesture, quickly adding that, in many ways, she should be sending one to them as well. That’s because, while this experience, this document, is beneficial for him and his family, it has been beneficial to her as well. It has given her insight into not just one life, but many, and a new appreciation for all the things that make a life special.
As she said, the best part is that she made a good friend in the process.
That’s what journaling is all about.