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Valrico memoir writing class is all about sharing

VALRICO

In Mary Nous' memoir writing class at the Campo Family YMCA, stories abound. There are tales of childhood memories complete with comparisons, jealousies and even embarrassments.

Accounts of how things used to be dot mini-autobiographies from authors who gather to reflect, memorialize and cope with a lifetime of emotions.

Every first and third Monday of the month from 1 to 3 p.m. since the course began in 2009, Nous acts as an ambassador of expression for a classroom of writers. They attend not to edit one another's prose, rather to share aloud what they wrote — from a topic Nous provides — in a supportive, encouraging manner. And it's all in the name of archiving their personal accounts of the highs and lows of their lives.

"Mary is always here," said Gretchen Sopko, 68, of Valrico. "She is our constant. She has given us promise. I don't think I would have ever gone where she takes me, on my own. We have a wonderful group of people. We share our emotions and experiences."

• • •

Nous' experiences are what brought her here to be a journalistic cheerleader and sounding board for recording all that is important. At 65, she is a widow with a story of her own. She uses a wheelchair to get around — a constant reminder of the day her life changed forever.

It was 1997. She and husband Victor, a 20-year veteran of the Tampa Police Department and former president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, were fresh into retirement on 80 acres of farm land in Clay, Ala.

They were traveling in their older model Ford Ranger on Route 77 toward Roanoke, Ala., when a driver in a newer model Dodge Ram hit the front of their Ranger while passing another vehicle. The impact crushed Victor's chest, rupturing his heart and killing him.

The collision also created upper spine and lower head damage to Nous, who suffered whiplash without the benefit of an airbag. The driver of the Ram had no life-threatening injuries, partly because his vehicle had an airbag. Nous said the driver was never charged in the accident.

• • •

Nous, the youngest of six siblings and who dropped out of school at 15, met her husband in upstate New York and got married in 1968. They moved to Florida in 1973 so Victor could attend the Tampa police academy while she applied her Albany Medical School background as a midwife in South Tampa, helping to deliver more than 800 babies. The couple raised three children of their own, Toni, Tammy and Victor.

She began the memoir writing class at the behest of her doctor, who wanted her to be more social, so she attended a library class on writing memoirs and became inspired.

"It helped me emotionally and I was sure it would help others," said Nous, her speech slightly askew from the accident. "Many of us don't want to discuss the terrible things in our life. I come from a very dysfunctional childhood and it helps to look at it from a different angle."

• • •

On this September afternoon, Nous' class comprises six local women who have completed their latest writing assignment — "Fads of Your Generation" — and have come to share in an open forum.

Maryann Hunt, 67, read aloud Nous' story for her where she reminisced about her dance partner from Colonie Central High School, Ray, who had "dreamy, hazel-green bedroom eyes" as he approached her once for a dance to Jan & Dean's Surf City.

With most of the attendees growing up in the 1960s, themes from fashion to music became consistent in everyone's text, but it was the reactions from the group and the inflection of everyone's varying personal familiarities that proved cathartic for the participants.

Dotty Hon, 69, grew up in the Tampa Bay area and wrote about being smitten to see Elvis perform at the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory. Her parents told her the $1.50 ticket was not in the budget and she couldn't attend, so "in sheer desperation I stole the money from my dad's wallet," she penned.

"I have a lot of stories to tell," Hon said. "I get feedback to get ornerier and ornerier. It helped me see my family issues as different."

• • •

Sopko, a lifelong educator who lived a "conservative upbringing" in Beaverton, Ore., titled her account "Classically Fashionable" and described being the first in her school to test the dress code by donning Bermuda shorts (and being told to change) and wearing 501 Levi cutoff jeans — outside of school.

She served as president of the Nordstrom Fashion Board and the photo that hung in the department store showed her sporting a stylish hairstyle called the "Marienbad" after a 1961 French movie.

Others in the memoir class were jealous to hear she received eight to 10 free bathing suits a year from Portland-based clothier Jantzen to test while working as a lifeguard and swim instructor in her teens.

"I am teaching as I am writing," said Sopko, who lost her husband 20 years ago. "I write with my grandchildren in mind. I'm getting the most out of this. More than any of my readers will."

• • •

Hunt, who shared the most comprehensive story at five pages, and Olga Finch, proudly the eldest of the writing group at 81, are a couple of Nous' essayists to have their works printed in hardcover books via Blurb.com. For Finch, a transplant from Irvington, N.J., becoming published was a lifelong dream. For Hunt, it's about putting her thoughts on the record forever.

"With all our rights being taken away from us, I think it's important to keep the written word safely stored away somewhere without it being tainted," Hunt said. "It's what we have."

Kelly Kelly, who grew up in Bath, Maine, and Mary Lou Hay, who attended the class as a guest of Hunt's, both agree. They write for deep, familial reasons.

Kelly had one grandmother who was deaf and unable to communicate with a pen and paper.

"I had no idea anything about her," Kelly said. "I wanted to leave behind enough information to know me as a person."

"I journal a lot," Hay said. "The written word will never be replaced. Passing it along to family members is probably the greatest thing you can do in your life. It's a lost art."

Nous is scheduled to host her next memoir writing class Oct. 7 at 1 p.m. Nous said she will continue to be there for writers who want to preserve their personal histories "as long as I can sit up."

Eric Vician can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Their own words

In Mary Nous' writing class at the Campo YMCA, she assigned members the topic "Fads of Your Generation." Here are edited excerpts from two of her students.

Olga Finch: My parents, brother and I lived in a small house in Irvington, N.J., (a suburb of Newark) since I was 9 -years-old. Many years later, my parents had saved enough money to buy a very small house at the Jersey Shore, just two miles away from the ocean in Belmar, N.J.

That is where we were vacationing when the movie Psycho opened. Art and I were not yet married, but he came down that Sunday to spend the day at the beach. Our plan was for Art and I to leave the beach early, drive to Irvington, and see the movie that evening. My parents were staying at the Shore for a few more days, and I would be alone in the house for probably the first time ever.

But the day was so beautiful. We lingered at the beach until almost sunset and then had to rush to make the movie, not bothering to shower off the salt water and sand.

We just made the start of the movie, which was and is the scariest movie I have ever seen. Most people remember that terrible scene where the woman is slashed to death in the shower by the psycho Norman Bates at the Bates Motel. After the movie, Art drove me home and I made him come in and check every room, every closet and under every bed before he left to go home to his boarding house in nearby East Orange, N.J.

Finally he was gone and I was alone in the house — and faced with taking a shower at midnight. If the bathroom hadn't been so small, I would have propped up a chair under the doorknob. While I was showering, I keep peeking out the side of the shower curtain to be sure I was still alone. I still cannot believe a movie could affect me so much, but there was no reasoning with it. I was afraid to take that shower.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but clearly fiction is stronger than truth.

Dotty Hon: In the late '50s, I was in junior high school. Crinoline slips with very full skirts were my favorite clothing fad. I would make very thick starch and soak the crinolines until they stood alone when dry. After school, I would take off the slips and carry them over my shoulder until I got home.

Elvis was on his rise to stardom and I was smitten. He was scheduled to sing at the Armory and I was determined to go. It cost $1.50, but my parents said they couldn't afford the price of a ticket, so I couldn't go. In sheer desperation, I stole the money from my dad's wallet. He noticed the missing money and threatened me with a butt-whippin'. Luckily, my mom intervened and they let me off with a serious lecture about trust and honesty. …

High school brought poodle skirts, fuzzy sweaters, saddle oxfords and pony tails. I was so excited when my parents bought me saddle oxfords in ninth grade. It was a chore polishing them, but the worst part was that I didn't outgrow them. I wore the same pair all four years of high school. The darn things looked so looked so ratty. I was so embarrassed.

Around the neighborhood, we wore jeans rolled up with a wide cuff to just below our knees and big white shirts. Pedal pushers and capris become popular along with two-piece bathing suits. Bikinis were being seen only in Brigitte Bardot movies, but an older friend of mine, who had a fabulous figure, wore one to a local beach. At first glance, it looked like a conservative two-piece. But this was a specially made bathing suit. It had draw string sides and she kept tightening it down until it was a very revealing bikini. We were asked to leave the beach.

I saved my lunch money and bought my first bikini in 1959, but I only wore it in the yard when my friends came over wearing theirs.

An exerpt from Nous:

The 1960s were crazy. Everything was moving so fast. I was starting a new high school and fitting in was scary. Honestly, I wish I could have been invisible. As anticipated, the first day at Colonie Central High, in New York, was miserable. I hated I had to sport a knee pencil skirt. Dressing modestly wasn't in.

I dare not consider buying the latest styles, I had to eat and money was tight. Besides, mother's rules stuck even though I wasn't at home. I was always told: treat school as if it was a job, and dress accordingly. Most the girls were in miniskirts, so short their underpants appeared when they walked, and I swear the sweaters were so tight they could hardly breathe. Really, I was jealous. I secretly wanted to be cool, but how? I wasn't event going to wear those clothes.

I was a dance junky in the 1960s. I watched American Bandstand every week to learn all the new dances. One day, Nancy told me about a Friday night dance. The church dance did allow girls to wear pants. I thought there might be a challenge to miniskirts verses pants, and pants won, hands down. Hurray.

My slightly fitted, pencil leg pants were perfect. I thought I would wear my black, mock-turtle neck blouse with my pants. As I looked in the mirror, my hair was perfect and sprayed stiff as a board. I looked good.

The 1960s music was blaring and the floor was tile in the hall, perfect for dancing.

On my goodness! A guy named Ray was checking me out. I think I am going to be asked to dance. He had such dreamy, hazel-green bedroom eyes. When he approached me, goose bumps appeared on my arm, and a tingle came over me. On no, I was blushing. I hope nobody noticed.

I am so thankful Jan & Dean's Surf City was playing. I know I would melt into a puddle if it was a slow dance.

Ray was the best male dancer in school. We won many fast dance contests. We became close, never danced slow, no romance. We were just dance buddies and I was fine with that. Word got out: I was a dance partner with the coolest dude in school.

After that, it really was a great year.

Valrico memoir writing class is all about sharing 09/25/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 5:35pm]

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