When Dorothy “Dotty” N. Johnson reflects on her life’s journey, she can only exclaim, “Can you believe it?”
That’s why she gave her book the same title, but added exclamation marks on either side of the question mark. Although much of “Can You Believe It!?!” reads like a memoir, Johnson, 88, never thought her stories would be compiled and published.
“These are my class papers,” she said during an interview at her home in a Bangor assisted-living facility. “They were never meant to be a book.”
Johnson started writing nearly seven years ago when she signed up for a class for seniors at the Y near her apartment in New York City. The short pieces are organized in the order she wrote them through April 30, 2008.
They tell a good portion of her life story that includes growing up in Portland and moving to New York City after World War II when her husband received a scholarship to Columbia University. When the marriage failed, Johnson worked her way into real estate, eventually showing and-or selling apartments to Luciano Pavarotti, Richard Nixon and Carlo Ponti and his wife, Sophia Loren.
“I used to think if I was going from Portland to South Portland that I was taking a big trip,” she said of the transition from Maine to the Big Apple. “I ate up New York. It was so fabulous. Nobody loved the city more than I did.”
Johnson retired from the real estate business when she was 80 and moved to Bangor permanently two years ago to be near her daughter and son-in-law Suzanne and Bob Kelly. The couple owns real estate in the Queen City but is best known for rescuing and refurbishing historic buildings such as those across Hammond Street from the Penobscot County Courthouse.
Stories about the Kellys and their two children, Alexandra “Alex” Kelly, 24, and David Kelly, 22, pepper Johnson’s book. Alex Kelly appears to have inherited her grandmother’s penchant for storytelling.
In March 2004, she interviewed her grandmother for a college paper on the history of radio and television. Alex Kelly asked her grandmother what it was like growing up without radio or television. Johnson wrote about their conversation.
“This generation has no idea what that world was like,” she wrote. “We didn’t miss it because we never heard of such a thing. And when we did hear, we thought it was a crazy whim of someone anyway, and didn’t believe it. Our life was pleasant, we listened to the phonograph with lots of good music, sang around the piano, played games like Monopoly and cards, and the girls sewed and made fudge.
“It seemed strange to Alex but when radio did come to Maine, we had a crystal set with earphones and we took turns with the earphones and shared them, each having a few minutes. It was unbelievable how we reacted to hearing voices coming through the air. Shortly after this, we got a small battery radio. This was wonderful because we could all listen at the same time.”
Alex Kelly works for StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening. Since 2003, tens of thousands of everyday people have interviewed family and friends through StoryCorps, according to information on its Web site.
Each conversation is recorded on a CD given to participants, and is archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. A few of the conversations are broadcast on public radio and the Internet.
For the past eight months, Alex Kelly has been traveling around the country recording stories that aren’t very different from the ones Johnson included in her book. She spends much of her time in a soundproof Airstream trailer outfitted with a recording studio. She facilitates the recording of 40-minute oral histories between their family and friends, then chooses and edits the best for broadcast.
“She’s inspiring to me,” Alex Kelly said of Johnson in a phone interview last month when the younger woman was in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Some of the stories in the book are family stories I know. Others I had read because she shared many of her class papers with me. It’s amazingly special to me that these family stories that I might not be able to remember or tell as well are going to be passed down in their real form because they’re in the book. It’s really powerful.”
Johnson wrote often about the joy she found in small, everyday events amidst family celebrations such as her granddaughter’s graduation from John Bapst Memorial High School in June 2002. Due to bad weather, her evening flight from New York was canceled and she had to leave for the airport at 6 a.m. the next day.
“It was still raining and when I stepped in a puddle off the curb, I saw something that looked like a dollar bill, wet, muddy and floating. I had my doorman hold my hand so I could bend over and pick it up. A 10-dollar bill. When I arrived in Bangor, mud and all, I passed my good luck on to my beautiful granddaughter Alexandra, the graduate.”
Suzanne Kelly said the publication of the book has been a “thrilling” event in her mother’s life.
“My mother handles life like she does her lobster — she digs in with great care and delight, savoring each and every bite, leaving no morsel behind,” she wrote in the introduction to Johnson’s book. “The very best for her is when she can share it with those she loves. ‘Role model’ really doesn’t capture what she’s been to many of us, although she’s been a great one. It’s more like her deep, warm, wonderful laugh just wraps itself around you and you get to carry it with you wherever you go. How blessed I am and have always been!”
Johnson said that most of her life, she traveled in different circles that rarely intersected. There were her work colleagues, her golf friends, her bridge players and the Water Lillies — the women she exercises with twice a week at the Y swimming pool in Bangor. None of the groups knew much about the other until the book was published.
“People say they thought they knew me until they read the book,” Johnson said, as if sharing a secret.
“Can You Believe It!?!” is available at www.lulu.com and at BookMarcs in downtown Bangor.