Writing memoirs for themselves, each other and posterity

Writing memoirs for themselves, each other and posterity

Writing memoirs for themselves, each other and posterity

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Jim Powers read a childhood remembrance, for memoirs clubJim Powers read a childhood remembrance he wrote for the Writing Our Memoirs Group at Marjorie P. Lee.

Someday, future generations of Jim Powers’ and Anne Harrison’s families are sure to treasure the memoirs they read at a recent gathering of the Writing Our Memoirs Group at the Marjorie P. Lee retirement community in Hyde Park.

The group of residents gets together every month to share what they have written. Their stories range from happy memories to very emotional ones. It’s one of many activities residents of Marjorie P. Lee and other Episcopal Retirement Services campuses share that entertain them and keep their minds and bodies active.

Powers, as an adult, was a respected history teacher at Indian Hill High School and the Cincinnati Museum Center. Now retired, he even has posted nearly 200 classes online that have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of teachers and students worldwide.

But as a youngster, he had a few academic misadventures, including one with a fifth-grade teacher in Clifton who despised him and another on his way to school by trolley at a younger age.

With an occasional wry smile, Powers recounted those episodes and others in November to about a dozen in the memoir group, which has been meeting at Marjorie P. Lee since late 1998. Shortly before he turned eight years old, Powers took his first solo trolley trip to elementary school without his Mom and was surprised when it wheeled into a “big, dim, dirty place” with a conductor who was surprised to see him still in the vehicle.

Jim Powers reads part of his memoir

Here's a video of Powers reading part of one of his memoirs....

“I burst into tears,” Powers said. “He explained this was the ‘car barn.’ He had put up a sign, which I hadn’t understood…. It was in Corryville, next to where Jefferson ends. The car barn is long gone. Well, as any adult would know, all was not lost. The conductor walked me up to the next stop and waited until a full-service trolley came. He explained what had happened and put me on a car that took me to the end of the line. An early experience of life is to be trusted.”

Miss Harris, his fifth-grade teacher, was so fed up with Powers late in the school year she sent him across the hall to an unused classroom every day: “I’d report in for attendance and then spend the school day in solitary.” He ate lunch with his classmates, “then back by myself for the afternoon.” Powers recalls this lasted weeks. “I read a lot, and I remember the wall clock. It would advance with a double click on each minute. I would try to hold my breath for a whole minute.”

“The classroom, as a storeroom/detention site, smelled of the chemical they sprinkled on the floor to be swept up with a push broom,” he wrote. “It was also dusty. I had spent earlier time-outs in the cloakrooms. But at least you could hear the class, and time didn’t hang so heavy. And you never did it all day long.”

Sharing meaningful memories

After reading to the group, which meets on the third Monday of each month, Powers said, “It was fun to bring up all those memories.”

Others read their writings about earlier adventures of their lives, including MPL resident Bill Woods, who recalled working for the Charter Committee in Cincinnati, a political organization that ran candidates for public office locally. He remembered helping campaign door-to-door in 1963 for Theodore M. Barry, who in 1972 would become Cincinnati’s first Black mayor. Woods was working at Charter headquarters on the day of the historic March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, when a supervisor invited him into his office to watch it on television.

“I was lucky enough to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech that afternoon. His soaring rhetoric caught my imagination, and I unconsciously realized that I was watching and listening to an important moment in our history. Hearing King’s words ring out to a huge audience would help me realize public life and politics at their best could help bring about a more just and caring society,” he said.

After Woods finished, Dan Wheeler, a longtime member of the group, told Woods: “I was at the March on Washington. It was my 21st birthday. But I made it. An important occasion.”

Also prompted by Woods' memoir, Powers told the group that during the speech, he was driving a Black youngster who was a Boy Scout in the Adirondacks, and they heard the speech on the car radio. He was moved by the young man’s reaction to hearing such eloquent words about the important topic of Civil Rights.

Others shared pieces of their lives. One group member told about how she and her husband bought 500 acres of farmland in Adams County, Ohio, and created the beloved bed and breakfast called the Murphin Ridge Inn.

Many in the memoirs group told her they had fond memories of visiting that inn, which is now owned by others.

Writing ranges from plain-spoken to poetic

Although Anne Harrison wrote in prose about memories of rowing a boat on a lake in the Adirondacks as a girl with her brother Peter, her descriptions in her memory called “Green Row Boat” were quite poetic.

Only lightning or the most torrential rains could stop them from being in that flat-bottomed boat once they passed their swimming tests. She recalled exploring the lake’s coves, islands, and streams that flowed into it. There was a beautiful waterfall overhung by huge hemlock trees and white waterlilies with a lovely fragrance.

They once persuaded their Aunt Bea to the boat with them. She brought a Sterno stove, and they had a tea party on a large boulder, which they decided to call “tea time rock.”

“The sun coming from the trees created a special green-golden light and made the ripples sparkle,” she said. “It was an endlessly beautiful and magical place.”

“Lovely,” one listener told Harrison. “Very nice,” added another.

“You write with pictures,” Powers told Harrison. “You can really see what you created.”

Others read their memoirs, also fascinating, with a variety of life experiences, from emotional to wistful.

Many in the group have shared their written memories with their families or plan to do so. Powers is thinking about creating computer slide shows to accompany his.

Wheeler, who has lived at Marjorie P. Lee for ten years, said he didn’t have children, but “for me, my family is primarily my siblings. And I am the oldest, by far. So they’re very interested in things about our family that occurred before they came along.”

Essentially, he’s the family historian.

“My father died when I was in ninth grade, and my two sisters were toddlers, so they don’t have much memory of our father,” Wheeler said. “And they’ve been asking me to write memoirs about our father.”

Wheeler’s top advice to people who people considering writing memoirs of their own: “Try it. See how it goes.”

Harrison, who used to own and operate The Bookshelf bookstore in Madeira, which still is in operation, hopes new members will join in the group’s fun.

She and others emphasize people should not be intimidated by their very welcoming group, which is not judgmental and offers a great opportunity to meet others.

‘Just start writing’

Harrison offers this tip: “Just do it. You’ve got to start somewhere. Just start writing.”

That’s what about a dozen memoir writers did in the fall of 1998, led at that time by Kathy Stewart. The plan was to have eight weekly sessions. Around week six, the group asked Stewart to keep the program going longer, and it did. According to a Memoir Writing history that Dottie Cowan wrote in 2015, Stewart suggested topics the group could write about and urged them to “dig deeper” and fill their memoirs with lots of details, including:

  • Who participated?
  • What happened?
  • When and where did it happen?
  • How did it affect your life?

Stewart also recommended the writers make lists that started with the words, “Mother said…”; “I am sorry…”; “I wish…”; and “Why…”.

She also recommended the members write in whatever form suited their topic: essays, letters to someone, poetry, or even a book.

Memoir members recently said it’s important to fill your writing with details and to dig deep into your memories to recall the emotions you felt. They said they would love to have other residents join in the fun.

Any Marjorie P. Lee residents interested in joining are encouraged to show up, and the welcoming group will tell you everything you need to know. The memoir writers, who meet the third Monday of each month at 3 p.m. in the Victoria Courtyard Lounge, would take pleasure in seeing you there.

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Kristin Davenport

Kristin Davenport

Kristin Davenport is the Director of Communications for Episcopal Retirement Services (ERS). Kristin leads ERS’s efforts to share stories that delight and inspire through social media, online content, annual reports, magazines, newsletters, public re... Read More >

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