338: Helen Newman—What Are Your Memories Of Growing Up, And Why Are They So Important To You Now?

Hear how memories impact you now and guide your future

What are your memories of growing up? Your friends? Neighborhood? Life-changing moments in our society? In today’s podcast, Helen Newman, a friend from my elementary school (Davis Elementary School in New Rochelle, NY) and I discuss the power of memories. Although we had different experiences in high school (she was in a sorority, I was president of the Salmagundi Club), we both experienced the good times and not-so-good times of the 1960s. The funny thing about memories is that they’re selective. We pick and choose the ones that fit our own story, often one where we are the heroes and we forget what others were struggling with or enjoying all around us. I guarantee that after listening to Helen, you will be amazed at her wisdom and joy.

Helen writes about something every month.

Sometimes it is about why that month means something to her. Other times, she writes about old friends and new ones. But in today’s conversation, we go deeply into the anguish we all felt during high school. If you were alive then, you like us will forever ask: “Where was I when John F. Kennedy was shot?” We even remember what we were wearing.

We also talk about how we felt when our biology teacher, Mrs. Schwerner, lost her son during the civil rights unrest in the South. And the conflicting passions surrounding the Vietnam War. To state the obvious, we grew up in very challenging times.

This month (November), she wrote about our autograph books.

It was hysterical to remember what people wrote about. Her book was filled with poignant, loving, sincere and sentimental sayings, like: “Helen and whomever, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” You remember those. Her favorite, and mine as well: “When you get old and out of shape, remember girdles are $2.98.” Sadly, they don’t make autograph books anymore, and I would have to dig into my attic to find mine. But you get the point!

Helen never expected to be a writer.

A while ago, she started to write and then it became a wonderful hobby. I love the blog posts that seem to touch everyone’s heart. She remembers stuff that we might also, but she puts it into a story (usually her own) and brings us back to the days when…you can finish my sentence.

My message to you, our listeners, is to find your own Helen Newman.

Or become one for others. Remembering is so important as time flies, and the moment brings back the time and place you were growing up in. We might still be growing up, never growing old, but we continue to live each day, forgetting how our past framed our present and set the stage for the future.

I cannot thank Helen enough for joining us today and sharing her own story. Think about writing yours. You can contact Helen at hnewman@tsjesq.com.

My quote for us today:

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”   ― Lois Lowry, The Giver 

For more about storytelling and the role it plays in our memories, try these:

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon. As you know, I’m your host and your guide, and my job is to get you off the brink. You know, my company, Simon Associates Management Consultants, we’ve been around for 20 years, helping people see, feel and think in new ways so they can change. And I often look for people who are going to give you a new perspective so you too can begin to see things through a fresh lens. You maybe even step back like an anthropologist (like myself) and observe what’s going on and reflect on it, reflect on yourself, and begin to find great ways to think in new ways.

So today, I have a wonderful woman here, Helen Newman. Helen and I go back to elementary school. And I’m going to let her tell you her story because as we were talking, and I was reading the things that she writes on Facebook, to bring back the memories, I said, “My audience should hear you remember.”

We’re storymakers. Humans love to make stories. And when we do use memories to create them, we connect in ways that are really magical. I’m going to read you one of hers in a moment. But first, Helen, thanks for joining me today.

Helen Newman: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Andi Simon: Tell the listeners, who is Helen Newman and what’s your journey all about?

Helen Newman: My journey, let’s say I’m a senior citizen so I’ve had a long journey. I grew up in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York. And when I look back, I think of my childhood as wonderment. Of course, there were bad days, a middle child, typically an outgoing introvert. And I had to fight for my place in the house. There were three girls, and I’m in the middle. It was my friends, my school that meant the most to me. And I never forgot that.

I went to New Rochelle High School with you. I met my husband in New Rochelle. He wasn’t in the high school with me because he had already graduated. But he also was from New Rochelle. He passed away 10 years ago. I went to art school after high school, I wanted to be an art teacher. But I always secretly wanted to be a writer.

In those years, I hope your listeners remember that for women, it wasn’t all that easy. And even my own mother who was kind of a beatnik, she was a pianist, even she said, “Well, be a teacher. You know, you’ll be home in the summer with your kids.” And all of that 1963, mid ’60s, feeling. But secretly, I always wanted to be a writer.

Andi Simon: But you didn’t become a writer?

Helen Newman: No, I did not. As a child, I lived in a cul de sac. And I used to write plays when I was nine years old. And made all of the girls in the cul de sac be in the play and make the parents pay to come and see it.

Andi Simon: I know when you were telling me that, I suspect that I even attended them.

Helen Newman: I remember doing The Princess and The Pea. I got the Golden Book and then wrote my own scripts. And I think I was about nine or 10. But I was never encouraged in any way other than to be an artist. She couldn’t see beyond the teacher. And I love children. So she knew that. My father, however, said to me, “You should be an attorney because you can argue on any subject.” And I ended up working in a law firm after teaching. It’s really funny because I still remember my father saying, “You can argue any case.” He didn’t have any sons so I was the son he never had.

Andi Simon: Oh, I love it. The interesting part, as we were preparing for this, we were reminiscing. You know, we both went to school at a time when New Rochelle was, I’m going to guess, half Jewish and half African American, maybe 40/40. But it was a very interesting time. We held hands and sang We Shall Overcome. Absolutely. It was a time when Michael Schwerner, who was our biology teacher’s son, was killed in the South. And one of the folks on the Facebook stream went under the Michael Schwerner bridge on the Hutchinson Parkway and was reminiscing. The reminiscing part is really important. We were there when John Kennedy was shot. And we all can vividly remember what we were doing and where we were at that moment in high school.

Helen Newman: Yeah, just recently, a niece of my daughter in-law from New Jersey interviewed me on where I was the day Kennedy was shot, and what I was doing, and I said, “Not only do I remember everything, but I can tell you what I was wearing. That’s the impact.”

Andi Simon: But I remember that all of us had gone through the Vietnam War period. I mean, we were all growing up in a transformational moment for American society. I don’t think it’s ever stopped being transformed. But I agree, I do think that we were growing up and changing at the same time.

Helen Newman: Yes. I think it’s really important to change. When you grow, you change when you go out into society. When you meet people, you change. That’s why friends of mine have used the term, “Oh, I’m old school.” And they do it on purpose. Because it drives me crazy, the hairs on my neck stand up. Old school means you’re not changing with the times.

Andi Simon: Oh, so interesting. So they’ve boxed you in yet you do your own thing. Ten years ago, you lost your husband and then you started to write on Facebook on our New Rochelle High School class of ’64 Facebook places. Was losing your husband a catalyst for this or just you needed something to do? What was the momentum there?

Helen Newman: No, actually, starting in 1974, I was called by a few friends because I have this weird organizational talent. Don’t ask me why. They called me and said, “Let’s have a ten-year reunion.” And I always like working. I always like having a project. So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And I did. And it’s very interesting. Very few people came. And it was the 23rd year of our graduation when someone called me and truthfully, I don’t even remember who it was, I think it was three or four people called, and said, “You should do a 25th.” And I said, “Oh, God, it’s a lot of work.” But I did it. We had 400 of our graduates come to White Plains, NY for the 25th reunion.

And the feeling, I can tell you something that I still remember, I was sitting at the welcoming table because I had to be like the boss and show everybody what to do. And I saw two groups of people walk in and see each other for the first time in 25 years. And they started screaming and running to each other. And I looked at my friends and I said, “This is worth it. It’s worth it. Look at these people. They are so happy to see each other.” And that was when it started. Then when it was our 48th anniversary, I got another call who said, “You have to do it for 50 years.” And I said, “It’s a lot of work, but I’ll do it.” I formed a committee on Facebook. There’s a Facebook New Rochelle High School Facebook page. And I started to promote it. How else do you do it?

So I started writing. Ah, and from then on the countdown, all of the questions that helped me find people all over the country. Very few stayed in New Rochelle. I’ve been one of the only few that are still here. And it snowballed into people calling me and saying, “What are you posting? I love your posts.”

And again, I’m the typical outgoing introvert. I like to be with a lot of people but I like to be by myself. Oh, this was way after the reunion, I got phone calls again: “Don’t stop posting. I look forward to it,” because people want to remember. They do want to remember. And it’s important. Our friendships were important. We lost contact with people, we regained that contact. It’s so special to me that I don’t even have the words and I’m filled with words. I don’t have the words to express to you how much it means to me that people have reconnected because of me.

Andi Simon: I’m going to read Helen’s latest September 2nd posting, a piece of it, so you can get the feeling because I want to go back to what she said is important to her. But it’s also important to all the 1000 folks who are graduates who are reading it, and the 125 who view it and then share it and then comment on it. And I watch their names and I’m going to say we hung out. This is cool. So this is September:

As I was pondering what to write, I suddenly realized that the month of September is filled with memories and holidays to celebrate. Now, the hard part is trying to focus on one particular aspect of the month. Oh my goodness, obviously, I cannot write funny anecdotes about how deliriously happy we are that our kids are going back to school. I can’t even write about how deliriously unhappy teachers are to go back to school. Most of you, not all, but most of you must be retired, so you know that subject. I could write about Labor Day, but I believe I’ve told you all this. However, one statistic is interesting. Did you know that more people are born in September than any other month of the year? Yeah, that was interesting. Is that why we celebrate Labor Day in September? Maybe? September 10 Is TV dinner day. Do you remember the TV dinners? Oh, I remember them. Except they’re called streaming dinners now, and I laugh. Also September 17 is locate a friend. But I’ve already located all of you. And then there’s September 19: respect for the aging day. No, definitely not that.

And I can tell you, Helen, I’m not the only one who was laughing. So here’s what I’ve decided. I’d like to celebrate Google. Oh, so important. No, so needed effect. Did you know that Backrub was the original name of Google? You imagine it being called Backrub? I got to get a backrub. Really? I know. You can tell me more about it. Google was founded on September 4, 1998. Now think about it. By Larry Page and Sergey Brin while they were PhD students at Stanford. I shudder to think of what my life would be like if I didn’t Google everything. I watch a film and Google the director. I read a book and Google the author. I’m a Google libertarian.

Helen Newman: Don’t bother googling me. I come up as Helen Newman Hall, rec center.

Andi Simon: And so enjoy your Labor Day weekend. And then keep laughing. And those comments are all absolutely beautiful comments, because we never stop learning interesting things about September. I can’t even begin to count the time. So I’m asking Google for info. Thanks, Helen. I love this post. I wonder if the number of babies born in September were after the end of the war. So I share with you my listeners and my audience why Helen was so important to bring to you. Because she makes us laugh. You can’t read her stuff. You’re not part of the private group. But she can tell us about that.

How do you decide what to write about? And where do you get the humor, and how I want the listeners to think about their stories, and how important it is in their lives, to connect, to belong and to be part of something more than just where you are today. The memories make your life more meaningful. So tell us how you became this writer? That’s just brilliant.

Helen Newman: Well, thank you. I love writing. I love making people laugh. Those are my two specialties. I researched the months. Two weeks before I post, I research the month to see what holidays people make up. I don’t know where these holidays ever came from but they’re on Google. You can Google a month and you will see 50 to 60 holidays. Then I print them out and I circle the ones that could be funny to us and circle the ones that would mean something to us. I try to incorporate something funny about being a senior. Something funny about our childhood and something to remember for all of us to remember. And I start writing. I write on my computer, I print it out, I edit it. The next day I look it over, I make it funnier. It’s like a job, but it’s a job I love. Yes.

And I’ll tell you, what keeps me going is that one month, I think I was in California visiting my children. And I didn’t come home until the sixth of the month. When I got home, I had four messages on my answering machine: “Are you okay? Did something happened? I’m waiting for your post.” And I thought, oh my god, people really do wait for it. People love to remember. People love the funny things we can remember. People love to remember their childhood friends. Yep. And it means so much to me that 125 people at least read those posts that I post. And because I don’t post anything on regular Facebook, it’s only on our page. I don’t believe in my life being that important to someone to my 400 friends on Facebook, because I love the fact that people love to talk about their past and what we were like when we were children.

Just the other morning, I was like at the Tweed Ward school. I don’t know, your listeners won’t know. But you’ll know, on Quaker Ridge Road between Ward School and Albert Lemon, and the crossing guard was letting a young lady cross. I would say she was in the eighth, seventh or eighth grade. She was wearing Ugg slippers, short shorts, her backpack, a short t-shirt and a sweatshirt. And all I could remember was Mr. Daley called my mother because my skirt was above my knee. I thought she was adorable. But, all I could remember was Mr. Daley calling my mother and said that my skirt was too short. That was probably in 1960, probably 1961. I think the New Abbot Leonard that we went to was in 1961, wasn’t it?

Andi Simon: Albert Leonard was a junior high school and Ward School became an elementary school. At the time, the population of children was growing very rapidly. And I only moved up there when I was 10. So you can get some dating and it was promos that I went to, and we all walked there. And Joyce was there. And we all rode our bikes. And we rode our bikes to Lord and Taylor. And it was a great community.

Helen Newman: When Lord and Taylor closed, I almost was in tears because we used to ride our bikes there.

Andi Simon: So the memories are essential to who we are.

Helen Newman: They are absolutely essential to who we are. It. I think one of my posts mentioned, we had to have license plates on our bicycles. And I remember the test at Davis School. Kids don’t have to do it now. We were so into our school. We were so into each other. It means a lot to remember that.

Andi Simon: It does. It does. And sometimes I need some clarity on my memories, because I lived on Primrose Avenue. But I went to the Davis School. And as I said those words I said, No, that’s not right. You didn’t go to the Primrose School, you went to the Davis School up the hill. And I do think that sometimes our minds forget all important kinds of things that we want to learn to remember. So as you’re looking forward, I always like to look ahead a little bit. You know, it sounds like you’re going to be doing this for a long time. It gives you great pleasure.

Helen Newman: It gives me great pleasure. It’s getting harder because I don’t want to repeat myself and I’ve been doing it for 10 years, once a month for 10 years. So I will keep doing it as long as the people respond because that’s what keeps me going. They love to remember that we were great kids. Kids are great.

Andi Simon: We were great kids and we cared about each other. And one of my mom’s legacies was when she would say to me, “Andrea, I really don’t care what everyone else was doing, you only hear what you’re doing.” It was a very hard way to grow up, because I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing. And then once you want to watch what other people are doing, and then figure out if that was good or bad, but I remember growing up and having to make choices. And it was a time where you had to find good friends who helped you make good choices, because it wasn’t hard to make bad ones.

Helen Newman: Absolutely. It wasn’t hard at all. And yet, I don’t know any kids that I ever knew that made terrible choices, which was very lucky on my part. We didn’t drink. We didn’t smoke. We didn’t do drugs. We didn’t work in my house. We listened to music because my mother was a pianist. So music has always been a big part of my life. And my mother died when she was quite young. So that’s another reason why I like to remember.

Andi Simon: You spoke about how you do this but that sounds like a pretty good process for anybody who’s listening. And we’d like to do it as well. You got to do a little research. Right?

Helen Newman: Look at what’s around you. I don’t know if it was last October, or the October before conducting three years ago, I don’t know. I was driving to work and I saw a sign for Oktoberfest. And right away, as I’m driving to work, I’m composing my post about Oktoberfest. There’s always ways you can connect. And I’ll tell you what’s really the loveliest part, there’s a few of the women who post on Facebook, answering my posts, and they come here twice a year to have lunch with me. That’s pretty cool. To have them live in the city, which is not far away. But one of them lives in South Carolina, the other lives in Florida. They come up to New York to see their children and for other reasons. And they make sure to call me and usually in December, we have a little lunch. And just as these are my friends from forever.

Andi Simon: I was a professional up in Poughkeepsie, and I’m at a party. And a woman walks over and said, “Are you Andi Simon?” And I said, “Yes.” She said, “I’m Dana Men.” So I said, “Oh my gosh!” You know, I was like, ah, you know, six degrees of separation.

Helen Newman: You’re absolutely right. And with me still being here and my husband from New Rochelle, no matter where I go, someone will say, “Wait, did I know you in high school?” Yeah, it’s fun. It’s important for us to remember our childhood, see this and grow from that. Not everyone had a perfect childhood. I always told my kids, and I’ll probably leave you with this: there are three types of families. There’s dysfunctional, semi-dysfunctional, and television. Called my kids that perfect family except Father Knows Best.

Andi Simon: You’re so funny.

Helen Newman: And now that we’re parents and grandparents, remember your parents and your grandparents and what they went through.

Andi Simon: I feel extremely blessed because my kids are out in California and visiting my kids is just terrific. Ones are in New Hampshire, terrific ones in California. Terrific. They have great families, and they’re raising great grandkids. And so I sit back and I look and I say, Well, I was professional from the time you were babies. And you seem to have raised yourselves really well. And I’m delighted.

Helen Newman: So they raised themselves. I have two children, both living in California, both working in Hollywood. So they were brought up with a mother who cared about music, art and film and writing. And they themselves are there. So doing the same thing.

Andi Simon: Helen, any last words or shall we wrap up for our listeners?

Helen Newman: It was a pleasure to talk to you. I love my Facebook, my New Rochelle High School Facebook page. I’m so glad that you read my posts. I want everyone out there to understand that your childhood is really important. Yeah, don’t forget to think about it and don’t forget it.

Andi Simon: I’m going to add to that being an anthropologist, like I am, we spend a lot of time understanding that people are story makers and storytellers. I will tell you there’s nothing in Helen’s posts, she’s a wonderful novelist, but none of our own memories are true. The only thing we have are our memories, which are great stories, right? That’s why when she and I started comparing the numbering, meaning, where we were and how your mind wants to make sense out of now, in the context of where you were, then exactly. And so the best thing you can do is start to write and make it a blog that you can share with your family, or just make it in your diary so that you can keep it for yourself, but don’t lose the memories. Because it helps you belong to something bigger than just yourself. And your thoughts?

Helen Newman: Well, that’s exactly how I feel.

Andi Simon: Now I’m going to post this and push this out into the world. And for our listeners, we are in the top 5% of global podcasts. And I’m honored because it’s you who helps share, and so many of you listen and then email us and tell us what you’ve enjoyed. I’m anxious to hear about starting to write your own stuff and share it with us. And let’s use Facebook for all the things that can be done and Google as well. So at the end of the day, I want you to have a very happy day and enjoy the memories. Thanks again. Goodbye.