When Martie Pritchard of Chapman decided to consult residents of the Leisure Village retirement community in Presque Isle for feedback on a book she was writing, she ignited an interest in storytelling that has taken on a life (and form) of its own.
She had been working eight years on a book about her mother’s life as a World War II German war bride and “wanted to be sure I had closed all the holes before I went through the publication process.”
She decided to share her stories with Leisure Village residents, thinking, “With their experiences during World War II and the aftermath of that time, they’d be a valuable resource — if they were interested.”
They were not only interested, they encouraged her to read the entire book to them. Soon, she turned the tables and invited them to bring their stories to share.
That was two years ago. Since then, “interest has expanded to the point that we had to meet in the dining room because we couldn’t all fit in the library.”
Now known as The Leisure Village Writers, members meet twice per week.
“Hearing from one veteran writer after another opened my mind to all kinds of possibilities,” Pritchard said. “At the very least, I knew we had to gather these amazing stories into one volume.”
In December 2015, she collected the stories, essays and poetry into spiral notebooks for the writers to share.
“Even then it didn’t strike me that we were holding in our hands a gold mine of history,” she said.
That revelation came in conversations that evolved when she agreed to teach a course on storytelling for SAGE (Seniors Achieving Greater Education), a program offered through the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and Pritchard realized others were interested in the historical value of the stories her writers were telling.
“This is a gift! A two-way gift in that the writing and giving serve similar ends,” she observed.
And so, “A Gift to the Future” from the Leisure Village Writers was born.
With a foreword by Presque Isle author Glenna Johnson Smith, the 224-page book is divided into sections titled Memories of Childhood through Teen Years, As We Became Adults, We Experienced Married Life, New Generations Join the March, Way Back When and Building New Memories in these Golden Years.
The authors are Leonard and Phyllis Hutchins, William McConnell, Maxine Smith, Rachel Burden, Marilyn Chase, Marjorie Bishop, Leila Day, Norma Ouellette, Roger Oakes, Joyce Davis, Joan Allen and Donna Pelletier.
Pritchard said the writers are motivated by a mutual respect that reflects the atmosphere of their lives at Leisure Village. As the “writing facilitator,” she helps the writers find ways to express their ideas, including three blind residents who have begun writing again using raised line paper, heavy black-lined paper, or a simple note pad.
“How difficult it must be to write and not be able to see what you’ve written! For these folks, I take the hand-written copy, read it with their input to the group, and later transcribe on my computer,” she said.
For other writers having difficulty expressing their thoughts, Pritchard “reverted to the interview process and used a tape recorder to make sure I preserved their exact words and ideas.” This process attracted Kathleen Dampf, a student at Presque Isle High School, who offered to help.
“With tape recorder in hand, she worked with one of our residents and will probably do more interviews in the future,” Pritchard said.
Dampf and Ouellette are pictured on the cover of the book, along with Leonard Hutchins and McConnell.
“For the majority [of writers in the group], the physical act of writing is still so rewarding they need only an audience of story-lovers to spur them on,” Pritchard said.
Vintage and current photos are sprinkled throughout the book, along with photos and biographies of the writers and suggestions for using the book to inspire others to gather the history of their communities from the people who lived it.
“I had a vision of their voices as the carriers of history of our community,” said Pritchard. “I’ve come to believe that if this small group of elders has this much history hidden away, there have to be hundreds, thousands just like them who are in need of a ‘writing facilitator’ to help them record their stories for posterity.”
One writer said, “Martie Pritchard opened a window for me,” to which Pritchard responded, “Maybe all it takes is someone to open windows into the world of writing.”
Designed and edited by Marina Dutzmann Kirsch of Kensington, New Hampshire, the book is produced by Bright Star Publishing and is available at email@example.com, local booksellers or as an e-book via amazon.com.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.