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Capturing childhood memories for future generations

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When Mary Jo McCarthy looked up her grandfather’s name on a genealogy website, she learned what ship he had been on when he came to America and other basic facts.

But what McCarthy yearned for were his stories — the stories of his childhood, the stories that gave her a glimpse into the man he was. Unfortunately, those stories were lost forever since they were never written down.

McCarthy, a former teacher now freelance writer, helped a Crosslake man pen three autobiographical, self-published books. She wanted to find a way to help other people write down their childhood memories before they, too, were lost.

She prayed about it and got her answer.

Since April, McCarthy has been facilitating writing workshops to help participants write down their own stories. This is not a chronological personal history, but little snippets of their lives, including their favorite childhood memories.

McCarthy said few people want to read someone’s life story from beginning to end; instead, they would rather hear interesting stories of what their lives were like and their family traditions.

McCarthy said many people think they can’t write their own stories because they’re not a writer. You don’t have to be, she said. But you are the best person to write down your own memories because no one can capture those moments like you can, she said.

“I found if you’re writing someone else’s memories, it’s tough to get into them and really do them justice,” McCarthy said, which is why she wanted participants to write down their own stories in their own words.

For the past two months, McCarthy has hosted “A Time to Remember” writing workshops. The classes run from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and are held once or twice per month at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Nisswa. The classes are limited to 12 participants.

Registration fee is $25. Workshop participants need only to bring their own lunch. McCarthy provides paper, although those who wish to bring a laptop to write on instead may do so.

McCarthy guides participants through the writing process by providing writing prompts, or specific questions about their childhood, and they are given time to write those answers down. When everyone is finished answering the question, then the group talks about what each has written about, which often sparks additional details and memories. It also makes the class fun.

McCarthy said her goal is for each workshop participant to complete 15-20 stories that they can take home in a folder, make copies of, and pass down to their children and grandchildren. While many people often say they should write about their lives for their grandchildren, often many people do not.

“They think it’s too big of a task, and so they don’t start,” McCarthy said. “They need that encouragement that they can do it. It’s their memories, and they can write it.”

“This has been a delight,” Joyce Olson, a Hardy Lake resident, said as she attended McCarthy’s May 16 writing workshop. “I’ve been procrastinating about writing my memoir, and I thought this would get me started.”

Pam Lillehei, Breezy Point, published a book in 2008 about her faith journey through breast cancer. Even though she has been published before, she felt the class would help her get started on a second book.

“I feel there’s another book in me I’d like to write,” Lillehei said. “This has been very good for bringing up memories, things I hadn’t thought about in a long time.”

Workshop participants shared stories about taffy pulls, making popcorn balls, playing long-forgotten outdoor games with siblings and schoolmates and participating in their Christmas Sunday school programs.

“I love it because I feel I’m giving something to these people for their grandkids,” McCarthy said.

To register for an “A Time to Remember” writing workshop, call McCarthy at 218-543-4656.

(Jodie Tweed is a freelance writer who lives in Pequot Lakes.)