Old age “is evidently a time when you marvel at the ordinary,” Jan Slepian once wrote.
For her, though, ordinary events had always offered inspiration. First as an author of children’s books, then as an essayist, and finally as a poet, Mrs. Slepian published 28 books, marveling at every turn at subjects that often receive scant attention.
“The Alfred Summer,” her honored children’s book, was inspired by the life of her brother Alfred and featured two disabled boys among the main protagonists. And in later poems and brief essays – she called them “essayettes” – Mrs. Slepian contemplated life through the eyes of the oft-invisible elderly.
“The main feeling I have is what I can only call astonishment,” she wrote in the title essay of “Astonishment: Life in the Slow Lane,” published in 2008 when she was in her late 80s. “I, who once was fleet of foot, sound of limb, thick of hair, and smooth of skin, am now old and none of those things apply. It plain astonishes me that I am as old as I am. Yet, I must confess, that hidden to others, I still feel young in certain ways. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, and yet nobody ever told us that it was possible.”
Mrs. Slepian, whose first poetry collection, “Jellybeans in Space,” was published last year, died in her sleep Nov. 2 in the Sunrise of Arlington senior living center. She was 95 and had moved to Arlington from New Jersey about four years ago.
In the collection’s title poem, she recounted dropping a carton of jellybeans that scattered into a constellation of lost sweets. “My favorite blacks/were black holes in the cosmic display,” she wrote.
Bending down and picking up was beyond me.
Reaching for the stars no longer an option.
Transfixed, appalled, amused,
I awaited my spaceship.
And in “Loneliness,” she wondered if loneliness has a color, a fragrance, a whiff of something profound.
Or, say that loneliness
can make a sound,
so muffled that a ping
I can’t even hear the sound
of my own voice.
After a lifetime of writing, the practice of poetry “gave me more than I can say,” she said in an interview for a “Stories With a Heart” video posted on Vimeo. Her earlier publications, meanwhile, seemed to form a path to the final work. “Writing children’s books, I learned to compress big ideas into small things, and I learned how to think rhythmically. And so it prepared me — in ways that I had no idea about — for poetry, which was waiting for me like a lover.”
Janice Berek was one of three children born to Louis Berek and the former Florence Ellinger, and grew up in New York City. Her brother Alfred was developmentally disabled, and after a childhood fever he suffered seizures the rest of his life.
He inspired the title character in 1980’s “The Alfred Summer,” which also featured a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy.
Some school boards took issue with the protagonists and their thoughts, and wouldn’t let their pupils read Mrs. Slepian’s book, even though it was a National Book Awards finalist in 1981 and an honored book for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. “I wanted to show that such a person shares the same fears, the same need for love and friendship, that he yearns for and responds to much the same things as we all do,” she said in an interview for Herbert N. Foerstel’s 2002 book “Banned in the USA.”
Writing books, meanwhile, was not what she aspired to while growing up in New York. “I’m a writer by chance,” she said for Foerstel’s book. “I didn’t go from the cradle to the typewriter. I set out to be a clinical psychologist, turned to speech therapy and because of that work began writing picture books when my own children were young.”
According to her family, she graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she married, and moved out West. She attended the University of Washington for graduate studies in clinical psychology and speech pathology, and moved to Boston when her marriage ended in divorce. While working as a speech therapist in hospitals, she met David Slepian, who would become an internationally known mathematician, and her second husband.
One day “she and her friend got locked out of their apartment and asked the man next door to climb in the window. That was David Slepian,” said their daughter, Anne Ellinger, a poet who lives in Arlington.
After marrying in 1950, the Slepians lived in Europe before settling in New Jersey, and she received a master’s in speech therapy from New York University while her children were growing up. He spent his career at Bell Laboratories and died in 2007.
Most of Mrs. Slepian’s books were for children and young adults, and she wrote her “Astonishment” essays for the newsletter of a retirement community in New Jersey. Several years ago, the essays were adapted into a stage production. “I remember feeling as if I had landed on another planet,” she said of living only with other elderly residents, and added: “Take away the years, and the arthritis, and once again I was a shy child. Instead of a classroom, the dining hall was a sea of gray-headed oldsters . . . I wanted to hang back, run home. Not yet! Not yet! I wasn’t ready for it.”
She turned out to be very ready for poetry, however. “The qualities she had — of being a wordsmith, of seeing life with humor, of having a heart toward people — all of that was in her poetry, but even more essential,” her daughter said.
In Arlington, Mrs. Slepian joined a poetry class taught by Jessie Brown. “She had found kind of a new strength,” said Brown, who added that although she was decades their senior, Mrs. Slepian inspired the other students with her daring, and was the driving force for publishing a collection of poems written by those in the class.
“Without a lot of self-consciousness, Jan let herself play with the words until they sang, until they made her laugh,” Brown said. “She had much more courage, maybe because of her age, than some other folks. She was able to let go of a lot of worries and concerns about doing things right and really just fly.”
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Slepian leaves two sons, Steven of Reston, Va., and Don of East Stroudsburg, Pa.; her brother, Richard Berek of Morristown, N.J.; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday on the second floor of Sunrise at Arlington.
In the “Banned in the USA” interview, Mrs. Slepian recalled that when she was 12, and reading books such as Voltaire’s “Candide,” she was “entranced by the music of words, and I remember thinking that some of those words were dancing around the page.”
And poetry, she told “Stories With a Heart Video,” gave her “a language that I didn’t know I had that can explore places in my heart.” In “Muscle Building” from her second collection, “The Other Shoe,” she wrote:
The heart is complicated enough
without murky metaphors.
I write from my beat to yours.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.