Valrico memoir writing class is all about sharing

Top row from left are classmates Kelly Kelly, Olga Finch, Dotty Hon and Gretchen Sopko. Seated from left are Mary Lou Hay, Maryann Hunt and Mary Nous.
Top row from left are classmates Kelly Kelly, Olga Finch, Dotty Hon and Gretchen Sopko. Seated from left are Mary Lou Hay, Maryann Hunt and Mary Nous.
Published Sep. 25, 2013


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.

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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 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