Published December 19, 2018
By GAIL LOWE
LYNNFIELD — When something is brewing behind the scenes, Elena Gillon can usually detect it on her inner radar. But the Reading resident had no inkling of what was about to happen in the auditorium of Lynnfield High School on Tuesday, Dec. 11.
The 99-year-old Gillon family matriarch had been invited by her family to hear a Christmas choral concert presented by the Reading Singers, a group she had heard last spring and thought were “wonderful.”
But the invitation was a ruse for something even more wonderful. She was about to hear in English “Family Memories,” a book authored by her cousin Marina Hernandez Banares who lives in Spain.
“She was quite surprised,” said her son, Lynnfield resident Robert Gillon.
Students in Kristin Wane’s Spanish 4 honors class translated the book’s pages within a week’s time. A second week was set aside for revising and editing.
The book contains information about their family history, including their travels, births, illnesses, deaths, a family tree and photo collection. Some of the photos were projected onto an on-stage screen.
“I was fortunate to have seniors in the AP class (Shelby Considine and Julie Lynch) help me check and edit the document,” Wane said.
From 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Gillon listened while 52 LHS Spanish 4 honors students read the book after it had been translated from Spanish to English.
The story of the “Family Memories” book started with Marina, a cousin Elena had met only once in her lifetime. The two had conversed through mail and later email, and at some point Marina said she was writing a story about their family.
“There’s a 16 years plus age difference between the two women, so my mother, with her incredible memory, knew she could add more background,” said Bob.
Once the book was completed and received in Spanish, it was difficult for Elena to read, as she had not used Spanish in her daily life for nearly 80 years.
“I had thought to ask some high school students to translate the book as a community service,” said Bob. Initially, he wanted to reach out to Reading where Elena currently lives, but there was no program to support it.
In passing, Bob mentioned the idea to a friend in Lynnfield who teaches school in Reading, and she suggested that her daughter, head of Advanced Placement Spanish, could present it to teacher Kristin Wane.
“Ms. Wane jumped all over the idea as a great learning experience for the kids,” said Bob. “She had lived in Madrid for about three years and knew exactly where my cousin lived.”
Today, Elena Gillon is in “pretty fair health,” according to Bob. “She has had the usual maladies over the last five years, including a fractured hip and vertebrae.”
Elena is currently on Facebook and keeps up with her 17 great-grandchildren and nine grandchildren by sending emails from her iPad and iPhone.
“When she has technical issues, she calls me for assistance, but if I don’t respond quickly enough, she will always figure it out,” said Bob.
He added that he and his two sisters and two brothers are blessed to have such a remarkable mother.
“What I find interesting is that not having had much of a formal education, her best attribute is her memory,” he said. “She hears things and retains a lot of knowledge. She can speak on almost any topic. She knows a lot about politics and is proud that she has voted in every presidential election since 1939, her favorite being FDR. Even when we have questions about presidents before she came to the U.S., she has the answer. She is now getting ready for the presidential election in 2020.
“Kristin Wane was wonderful to work with,” he continued. “I wish I could have done more to help her prepare the presentation. She had a slide show of photographs to accompany the reading. If I’d had more time, I would have been able to provide additional family photos.”
Wane said that the project coincided perfectly with her class’ current unit, which includes past tenses in grammar and the theme of family relationships, generational differences and immigration. Fifty-four students were involved in the translation process.
“Each student was responsible for translating one page,” she said.
Wane has been teaching Spanish for five years, the past four in Lynnfield. Previously, she had worked as an English teacher in Spain.
Wane said that it was “rewarding” to see Elena’s reaction, knowing that she and her students helped bring some of the elder woman’s family history to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There were four generations present at the reading.
Wane said she thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Elena Gillon and hearing some of her own memories from her early life in Spain, especially as they connected to the historical events of the time.
“It’s a rare opportunity to talk to someone who lived during that time period and who also still retains such clear memories of it,” Wane commented. “It’s like having a direct window to a unique moment in history. I think the students felt honored to have worked on this for her.”
In addition to translating Elena’s book, Wane started an ePals exchange program at LHS, which connects students of Spanish with students studying English in Spain.
“We do collaborative projects and exchange videos with them, and for the past three years, a group from Spain has come to Lynnfield to participate in person on a collaborative project,” she said.
This will be Wane’s first year for taking a group from LHS to Spain during February break and visit the school of their ePals.