The Stories of Life

Told in sweet vignettes

By Dana Sachs

Last December, just before the holidays, a group of people gathered in the coffee shop of Wilmington’s Cambridge Village retirement community to celebrate the publication of a new anthology of writing, Vignettes from the Village. Most of the authors — all Cambridge Village residents — attended. Their poetry, essays and fiction veered from light and funny to searingly personal. In a piece titled “Safe Kept Memories,” Rose Anna Mazzotta describes how a grieving widow remembers her husband picking up her hand and “rub(ing) her palm with his thumb.” In Mary Starks’ “And John Paul Makes Five,” an errant toddler falls out a window and his older sister catches him by the foot. Suddenly, two men appear and save the baby. “Do you believe in miracles?” the author writes. “I do.”

Bev Moss Haedrich watched the contributors look at the anthology and felt a swell of pride. The writers were her students in a workshop called The Write Stuff. When the session began nine months earlier, many of them expressed a nervousness that Bev often sees among new writers. “They haven’t cured a disease,” she says, “so they don’t feel they have anything worth sharing.”

Bev and I are talking about the workshop over lunch at Two Guys Grille in Porters Neck. To ease her students’ concerns, she tells me, she emphasized the value of their ideas and the need to record their experiences. Their work didn’t need to reach a wide audience; they could focus on recording their lives for their loved ones. “It’s important for them to share these stories,” she tells me.

Bev also wanted to help each budding writer access their creativity and inspiration, so she assigned exercises. Presenting the first part of a sentence, for example, she had them write from there:

“The very first time I received flowers, I —”

“The neighborhood I grew up in was filled with —”

Responses varied in many ways. Students ranged in age from 65 to 95. Some, Bev says, returned “to a time when they were 5 or 6 years old.” Others explored more recent experiences. In an essay called “Just Irene,” writer Irene Laslavic recounted beloved moments of travel: “Overlooking the water lily pond from the little Japanese green bridge in the rain, I saw Monet’s Giverny.”

Certainly, aging can shift people’s thinking toward physical pain, but Bev’s students seemed intensely engaged with the world around them. “They’re actually experiencing new things every day,” she tells me. In an essay called “And the Lions Play,” Eileen Langley describes a trip she took to Africa in 2010. One day, two people — Langley and a young dentist — joined an organized walk through lion country, while everyone else in their group stayed behind. “The dentist’s wife told me to bring (her husband) back safely!” Eileen recounts drily, “and I was 88 at the time!”

Bev regards Vignettes as a gift for future generations. “Our children may not be interested,” she admits, “but our grandchildren or great-grandchildren might.” She also values the act of writing. During retirement, “it would be very easy to just sit around and wait, you know? I wanted them to think in present tense.”

Bev herself began writing and teaching as a teenager. In high school, her essay “On Lowering the Voting Age to 18” won recognition in a national contest. Not long after, her family moved to Taiwan for three years, and she began tutoring children and adults in English. Since then, her professional life has included both magazine journalism and running writing workshops. “I’ve always loved teaching,” she tells me. “You can go in with the most prepared lesson and something will kick in and take it in a whole new direction that’s so much better.”

This kind of open-minded attitude makes Bev a fine companion at Two Guys Grille. The restaurant seems, at first, like a typical joint, serving starters, salads, sandwiches and burgers. The menu, though, offers unexpected combinations and flavors, and Bev greets each like we’re on a great adventure. The Southwest Black Bean Salad — on the surface an unassuming blend of chopped veggies, beans and cheese over mixed greens — reveals itself to be a circus of crunch and heat. “Jalapeño poppers,” she announces after a couple of bites. “It’s kind of like one of those.”

We may not be stepping into a lion’s den, but we’re brave enough to order the restaurant’s most surprising option. The Bleu Berry Bacon Burger combines bacon and melted blue cheese with — no kidding — blueberry jam, jalapeños and a knot of grilled onions. “Who the hell is going to put blueberry jam on a burger?” Bev asks. In fact, it’s a rich, messy, wildly flavored concoction. After a bite, Bev calls it “a sweet and savory,” which may explain why, according to our server, the dish has become a hit.

As the Cambridge Village workshop approached its end, Bev began editing and compiling the manuscript that would eventually become Vignettes. “It took, oh my gosh, a full week,” she says, adding that many submissions arrived the old-fashioned way, as handwriting on paper. She had to finish quickly, she tells me, because her students “wanted to include it with their Christmas presents to their families.”

Throughout the workshop, some writers had been shy about public readings. “I couldn’t possibly read mine,” one said, to which Bev reminded them, “We’re all unique. We celebrate all of it.” At a book launch party in February, friends and family members gathered over wine and cheese to celebrate the publication, and the just-published writers stood up, one by one, to read their work.

Irene Laslavic, who had written so lovingly of Giverny, didn’t make it to the party. She died in December. But on the afternoon of the party, her husband arrived at the event with their two daughters. When it was Irene’s turn to stand in front of the audience, he took her place and read the story of Monet’s garden himself.

To Bev, Vignettes represents more than a workshop souvenir. The book’s archive lives, which families can treasure. Her sense of the value of the process may explain why, when she handed out the first copies of Vignettes, Bev tied a festive ribbon around every volume and included a pen with each copy she gave out. Her students had transformed themselves into authors, and once they had their copies, she says, “I knew they’d want to sign them.”

Two Guys Grille is located at 8254 Market Street in Porters Neck. For more information, visit or call (910) 686-3231. If you’d like to know more about Bev Moss Haedrich’s The Write Stuff workshops, contact Bev at

Dana Sachs’s latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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