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Writing group learns to share family stories

When Lou Huntley was growing up, his parents would occasionally drop him off alone in the Loop. His mission was to find his parents, who were waiting for him under the clock at Marshall Field’s.

“My mother and father wanted me to learn to get around Chicago,” he said, noting that the only people he would ask for directions were street cops or newspaper vendors.

Although he was only about 10 at the time, he said you could do that back then because “no one ever bothered kids.”

That was one of many stories told during a recent meeting of the Memory Writers Group. The group, which started in September, meets from 1 to 3 p.m. on Thursdays until Nov. 30 at the Fern Dell Museum in Newark.

According to facilitator Vic Stott, the purpose of the meetings is to encourage people to write down their experiences, as well as family history, to present them to younger family members, perhaps as Christmas gifts.

“One of my uncles died and he had written something with my father in it,” Stott said, in explaining why he wanted to start the group, which is meeting for the first time this fall. “It was so nice to have, I wanted to do this here at the museum.”

“I just want my family to see what I’ve written,” Betty Morel said, adding she doesn’t want anyone else to see it.

Part of what she will write about is growing up in Chicago, which she did before moving to rural Newark when she was 15.

“I want them to know about that part of my life,” she said, before adding with a chuckle, “I’ve forgotten some of that myself.”

Although most of the group, usually numbering between 12 and 14, is local, Stott said five members come from as far away as Aurora and North Aurora.

Two of them are Bill and Marion Wallbaum of Aurora.

“A friend of ours told us about this,” Marion said. “I’ve wanted to write our memoirs for a long time. We really enjoy it.”

Although she said they don’t mind driving, the couple was late for a recent meeting when they got behind a slow-moving farm implement. The topic instantly led to a flood of memories from the others about old tractors and farming.

As they do at all meetings, Stott introduces a topic that stirs memories to write about. Each meeting usually has a theme.

Past themes included chores and first jobs, school days, your first car, what you did during the war, town stories and recipes. Members will either discuss memories or else read what they have written based on themes suggested at the previous meeting.

During one recent meeting, the topic was holiday memories.

Joanne Eike remembered just getting cake for Christmas when she was young, never any presents. She also remembers having seven Christmas dinners one year among all her families.

With a mischievous chuckle, Stott said he used to hang nylons instead of stockings at Christmas because they could hold more goodies.

Van Mathre related a story of how her husband tried one Christmas, but couldn’t get a Christmas tree to stand up until he threw it into a corner of the house.

When he got engaged, one of the first things Jeff Olson’s family wanted to know was when his fiancé’s family celebrated Christmas. Since they celebrated Christmas Day and not Christmas Eve, like his family, he said everyone got along.

During one such holiday meal, Alice Olson shared a story of sitting with one of Jeff’s relatives who instructed her on which ethnic dishes to eat. “He’d say, ‘Don’t eat that,’” she said, laughing. “’Take two of those.’”

Alice also related how she spent one New Year’s Eve in the maternity ward of a hospital. After delivering her youngest child the day before, she said she could hear a party going on at the nurse’s station, which none of the patients were invited to attend.

“You better not need help at midnight,” Jeff said, half-joking.

For Thanksgiving, Bill Wallbaum said his children started a family tradition of playing flag football before sitting down to dinner. The game got pretty spirited one year, he said, as one of his grandsons “got put in the hospital.”

When someone else said they just watched pro football on Thanksgiving Day, Walt Huffmaster said he never did that when he was young. “We didn’t have TV,” he said.

Huffmaster said he can also remember Christmas tree lights that didn’t light up.

When the topic turned to good holiday silverware, Huntley recalled how his grandmother always made him clean hers whenever he got into trouble. “She had perfect sterling silver,” he grinned.

“There are so many stories to tell,” Stott said.

Although the meetings are only scheduled to run through the end of the month, Stott said there have been talks about continuing them next spring. If they do, he said they’ll go into more depth with the stories.

Anyone interested can still attend the final meetings, set for Nov. 15 and 29, with no meeting on Thanksgiving.

“It’s a fun group,” Alice Olson said.

Future topics include collectibles, pets, bedtime stories and gifts you got when you were a child that you still have.

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