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Telling Their Life Stories; Older Folks Find Peace in Looking Back

Photo Credit:  Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
ISABELLA S. BICK’S parents, both Jewish physicians, never talked about the past after the family moved from Fascist Italy to the United States in 1939. She was 8 at the time and quickly learned it was best to keep her feelings of loss and loneliness to herself.

Her silence ended — and those emotions broke free — when Ms. Bick, now 84 and a psychotherapist living in Sharon, Conn., began writing bits and pieces of her life story a few years ago. In one vignette, she describes the trauma of moving with her parents and younger brother into a cramped apartment with her father’s Russian family in Troy, N.Y.

Her parents dealt with their grief by refusing to speak Italian at home or to reminisce about their life in Europe. So young Isabella did not tell them about the schoolmates who taunted her or the teacher who shouted at her. She was determined “to invent an American little girl” as quickly as possible, reading poems aloud each night until she lost her accent.

In bed, though, she slept with the brown lambskin coat that she had worn on the ocean voyage to America. Ms. Bick writes that she had “endowed Coat with very special magical qualities” and that she dreamed of returning to her home in Tuscany and her beloved nanny. “With Coat close to me, I felt I could hide my Italian self, not yet totally lost, and not yet reveal my still unformed American self — I could hold on precariously to both — for a little while longer.”

Like many older people who write their life stories, Ms. Bick found some peace in looking back. “Writing is painful because it brings back memories,” she said in a recent interview. But when she began writing, Ms. Bick said, she recognized “that there was this joyous little girl” whom she could finally “reclaim.” And she described “an awe that I survived some of the things I went through.”

Ms. Bick, who has three children and three grandchildren, considers her stories a gift to future generations — and to past ones. “I am keeping my parents and grandparents alive,” she said. “And, as an egotist, I am keeping myself alive. I am remembered.”

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Telling Their Life Stories; Older Folks Find Peace in Looking Back

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Telling Their Life Stories; Older Folks Find Peace in Looking Back


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