They wrote about their parents, their lives and shared memories from their pasts for this year's Senior Citizen Legacies Writing Contest.
Last week seven seniors from Essex County were recognized with awards from the Essex County Division of Senior Services.
The seven winning stories were picked out of 88 submissions from seniors throughout the county.
Awards were presented to Victoria Berutti of Montclair for “Our Flight to Freedom,” Catherine Ashman of Montclair for “Carry On,” Vivian Dumashie of Newark for “The Colored Water Fountain,” Jack Pignatello of Bloomfield for “Rescue Me,” Toby Stein of Montclair for “A Life Lesson, Plus One,” Rosemary Sideboard Hughes of West Orange for “Good News,” and Gwen Toub of Short Hills for “One, Only One?”
“Our Senior Citizen Legacies Writing Contest is a unique way for our older population to share their life's stories and describe the people and events that helped to shape their lives,” said Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr.
“Our seniors' stories make you laugh and they touch your heart," DiVincenzo said. "They provide us with a different perspective on historical events and what our society was like.”
The Director's Award was presented to Berutti of Montclair for her enthralling story entitled “Our Flight to Freedom.” Berutti grew up in Croatia, a Republic of Yugoslavia, during the outbreak of World War II and was 12 when the country w was controlled by the Communist ruler Marshall Josip Broz Tito. Not being a member of the Communist Party, Berutti's family lost their family hotel business and feared for their safety.
“The communist noose was getting tighter and tighter,” she wrote, and her father made the difficult decision to leave behind the lives they knew. “We had to leave our country, our relatives, our friends and our schools,” she said.
Berutti's father began working as a fisherman and eventually was able to afford a small fishing boat. She distinctly remembers her father telling her they must leave everything behind and not tell anyone, a frightening burden for any 12 year old to keep. Berutti helped her father load a few small suitcases wrapped in fishing nets onto the small boat.
Early the next morning she and her family left their home and boarded the small fishing vessel, unable to tell anyone they were not coming back. She clearly recalls seeing her mother silently weeping as the boat inched its way into the uncertain ocean. After a perilous journey of rough seas and her father diving under water to release a stuck anchor, they were greeted with a hearty “Bonjourno!” from local Italian fishermen, and knew they had made it at last. They later found out from Italian police that they had just narrowly missed a Croatian patrol boat out looking for them.
Berutti and her family spent a year in Italy before boarding a ship called “The Atlantic” and sailing to America.
“We were greeted by Lady Liberty – an overwhelming sight,” she wrote. “For our family, it was a totally new beginning in the blessed free land.”
“It feels good to be honored because after 62 years my story has finally come to light,” she said. “It's important to understand how blessed we are in this country and how difficult it is to live under tyranny and a lack of freedom. The experience made me a more serious person and gave me a stronger character and above all made me grateful for everything I have.”
Dumashie won an award for “The Colored Water Fountain.” Her story was inspired by one of her many trips from Harlem to her grandparents' home in South Carolina. The train ride she took with her older brother and younger cousin was long and hot, she recalled. Her father would give them shoe boxes containing lunches and instruct them not to eat it all at once or they would be hungry for the remainder of the train ride. He would also pay the conductor to keep an eye on them, she later found out.
Dumashie remembers one particular train ride when they stepped out onto the platform only to find that her uncle had not arrived to pick them up yet. They sat and waited for him, and waited and waited in the hot South Carolina sun. “I was so thirsty my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth,” she said.
When Dumashie walked up to a nearby water fountain, she was told that she wasn't aloud to drink out of that fountain, she had to use the colored water fountain. She was confused but began walking down the platform to the other fountain. The other “water fountain” was nothing more than a faucet sticking out of the ground and situated right next to a very dirty and smelly toilet.
She, her brother and her cousin stared at the water fountain rather perplexed. “I never heard of colored water before,” she said. “We didn't want to drink out of it because we didn't know what color the water was. In New York our water came out clear.”
Instead, they sat in the hot sun until their uncle came to get them. When he arrived they asked him what “colored” water was. He just said they would go to their grandmother's house for some “real good water instead.”
Dumashie, who also writes children stories, never expected her grandchildren to really understand the story. She was surprised at how interested and attentive they were as she read it to them. That was when she decided to enter her story in the contest.
“It was very emotional to read my story out loud but I saw that so many people could connect with my story,” she said. “It feels really good to be honored and maybe that will help me continue to write for children. I want to inspire children so that they can write their own stories.”