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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune

Marlene Wagener, standing, teaches an eight-week workshop aimed at helping local seniors write about their lives. Sitting are Naurine McCormick, from left, Carol Hays, Dietlind “Dee” McDonald and Idris White, who have recently finished memoirs with Wagener’s help.

Woman helps local seniors write their life stories

“A life review is what I am doing and writing. I am finally defining me — just me.”

So begins Carol Hays’ memoir.

The autobiography, stitched together with scripture, wistful reminiscing and thoughtful reflection, is the result of an eight-week writing class, and she admits “more of a spiritual journey” than a walk down memory lane.

“It’s more than just a factual” charting of a timeline of her life, says the 81-year-old.

“It’s a journey through a life that my children hadn’t known or understood.”

Hays is a resident of the Brookdale Senior Living community in east Medford, where Marlene Wagener held a series of “Writing as Legacy” sessions.

She and fellow residents Naurine McCormick and Dietlind McDonald were prompted to write about a variety of topics: turning points, hardships overcome, lessons learned, regrets, relationships that changed the course of their lives, forgiveness of others and themselves, and cherished moments.

They also were encouraged to write letters to their families.

The trio discovered they had much to say, many experiences to share and infinite wisdom to impart to their children and grandchildren. After the third cycle of the eight-week course, Wagener’s homework assignments had evolved into book-length narratives.

McCormick’s book is a travelogue of a trek that began on a farm in Iowa 93 years ago.

“It’s a long stretch” of road with twists and turns that took her from the farm to the world of academia, from wedded bliss to widowhood, and through the challenges of raising two sons alone, she recalls.

“A lot of hard work” is how McCormick sums up her life.

Growing up during the Great Depression on a farm without running water or electricity, she set her sights on greener pastures and planned to go to college after high school.

“My father told me if I was going to do something ‘that dumb,’ I might as well leave home right then, and so I did at age 17,” she recalls.

She worked a variety of jobs as she paid her way through college, sometimes stopping and starting all over again depending on the cash flow. When her future husband, Alden Higgens, returned home after four years serving on the European front during World War II, the young couple bounced around Wisconsin, South Carolina, North Dakota and Ohio. But keeping the promise he had made to her mother, McCormick’s husband made sure she finished college. After receiving her master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, she taught home economics and worked as a dean before retiring as department head at Ohio State.

“I enjoyed very much reliving the memories,” McCormick says about the writing process. “But in the retelling, the memories are so much more cheerful, so much more animated.”

She says the experience was “cathartic.”

McDonald’s favorite subject in school was writing, and writing letters was a favorite pastime. The 84-year-old’s book is a love letter to her second husband, Clint McDonald, who shared her life for 41 years.

“It’s truly a love story,” says Wagener.

But before the sweet, McDonald experienced the bitter. She grew up in war-torn Germany, and after the post-war chaos was encouraged by her godmother to move to the United States.

“It was a mixed blessing,” she recalls.

She married young, and though the union produced two children she adored, it was “a terrible mistake.” Divorced, she supported her children selling insurance.

“And then I found another love,” she says with a sparkle in her eyes recalling meeting Clint.

McDonald’s book includes not only the couple’s decades-long devotion, but also reminiscences of a first kiss and a “tall, blonde, handsome” young man who like herself was struggling to navigate the destruction, confusion and hardship of a defeated Germany, attempting to resurrect traditions from the rubble.

The two 15-year-olds met at a dance school. Starving, the youth were taught manners, etiquette and learned to waltz, tango and foxtrot.

“We were a motley crew becoming polished gentlemen and ladies,” she writes.

All three women say they were challenged “to write from the heart.”

“They gave pieces of themselves (in the writing),” says Wagener. “In the writing, they are the legacy — a legacy far greater than property or a trust fund.”

Their heirs will get a glimpse, she believes, of the women they were and are — the human being that was their mother or is their grandmother.

“She extracted us from us,” McDonald says.

She adds that her granddaughter read her poignant memoir and cried.

“It was a success, I think,” she says of the finished book.

When the three sat down to write their stories, they were amazed at all they had done, the lives they had created, and that they still had so much to say, experience, give and receive.

“They were given space to tell the truth,” Wagener says.

The “truth” is what she calls “the story between two paragraphs — the story that is left out when relaying a chronological timeline of one’s life.”

Hays says she “had no clue” she could write, let alone write a book she hopes is a “true heirloom” for her family.

“Marlene saw the potential when we shared and discussed the snippets of our lives,” Hays adds.

A child of the Great Depression and World War II era, Hays is hopeful her three children will see “the directions my deep faith has taken me.”

In the book, she tells how she met their father, Cecil, relates “the story of how each child arrived in the world,” and displays her pride in her husband’s military service that earned him a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

She also shares her love for God and country.

Any passage of patriotic music, she writes, “brings goose bumps” and “is sung over the lump in my throat.”

The memoirs were written in longhand, and after transcribing the women’s stories, Wagener custom designed each hard-bound book, filling the pages with photos from childhood and of loved ones, memorabilia and personal treasures, as well as artistic backgrounds and creative illustrations. The letters to family became the epilogue of each of their books.

“Writing as Legacy” is offered free of charge to residents of Rogue Valley-area senior living communities and assisted living facilities through Wagener’s nonprofit “It Just Takes 1.” She also conducts one-on-one interviews and just completed a session with a 104-year-old woman for that woman’s legacy volume. After working 40 years with children and adolescents, the former school counselor, high school principal and executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Jackson County says her mission now is to create an environment where “our elders felt truly relevant and alive as they see their place in their own narratives, their family’s legacy and our community.”

She is looking for sponsors to help underwrite the cost of producing future hard-bound books for the women and men who participate in her writing classes.

Wagener believes that the “Writing as Legacy” project “will shine a light on the aging process.”

“These are people who have lived and loved,” she says. “It’s an honor to work with such amazing people with amazing stories.”

After hearing her fellow Brookdale residents’ stories, Idris White, 82, is in the early stages of jotting down her own story.

She taught first-, second- and third-graders at Eagle Point Elementary for 21 years, and since her retirement in 1993 she has dabbled in poetry and taken writing classes just for fun. She created a personal oral history video for her two sons, daughter and 10 grandchildren, but wasn’t satisfied with the end result.

White was looking for an experience that gave relevance to her life and renewed family ties. She appreciates the camaraderie within the writing group — being engaged eases the loneliness and feelings of isolation, she says.

She adds that Wagener’s writing exercises challenge her to examine her relationships with her parents, siblings and children.

“It has been a real eye-opener,” she says as she wades through deep emotional waters.

She wonders if through the writing process, “I am living in the past more than in the present?”

McCormick tells her that she’s just “passing through the memories.”

Wagener reiterates that they are passing on a legacy.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

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