- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - When Karen Rooze was growing up, her family gathered weekly for dinners hosted by her grandparents at their Little Canada truck farm. Her grandmother filled the table with home-grown bounty, and attendance was mandatory.

“She kept us together with good pasta every Sunday. You had to be on your deathbed or out of town to miss the Sunday dinner,” said Rooze, who lives in Vadnais Heights.

The story of Mary Sofie Campanaro, who died in 1998, will not be lost, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/13cI9eX ) reported. As a Christmas gift to her family, Rooze is writing a book based on her memories of her grandmother, accompanied by videotapes of Campanaro reminiscing about growing up on a Minnesota farm.

“I have not been blessed to have kids of my own. It stops here with me,” Rooze said. “I need to share this.”

Holiday gatherings are the perfect time to present memories of the past or to interview relatives in preparation for next year’s gift.

“You ask people, ‘What do you know about your grandparents?’ and it’s amazing how limited the information is,” said Audrey Favorito, who founded St. Paul’s Wild Carrot Productions, which makes video memoirs. “The spirit and soul of a person is lost very easily from one generation to the next.”

A written memoir is the most common approach, and classes to help students along are offered at schools, libraries and the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

“People just want to be heard. They want to get their stories down,” said Jen Dodgson, education director at the Loft.

“As people age, that’s certainly a priority … to document who they are, the fact that they’ve been here and their rich history.”

Rooze took a White Bear Lake Area Schools community education class, “Recording Your Life and Stories,” from Scott Baerman, who mainly teaches technology courses to senior citizens.

Passing along stories — one’s own or a relative’s — is an important way to connect generations and create a record for family history, Baerman said. A book can be written from a journal; a scrapbook can be made with photos and items such as pressed flowers or rosaries; audio and video recordings can capture the personality of the speaker.

One favorite memoir method is using an audio or video recorder. “This is the way stories have been communicated from the beginning of time,” Baerman said.

He advises his students to find a quiet place to record and to have extra batteries. The recordings can be used as research for a written account or turned into CDs or DVDs.

Brenda Kowski of White Bear Lake also took Baerman’s class. Kowski, 54, said that when she was 18, she got on a Greyhound bus and went to California for what was supposed to a short visit — but she stayed for years. What was behind that decision may appear in the book she’s planning.

“I am writing my own memoir and picking out highlights of my life,” she said. “It’s been in my mind for a long time, but I’m finally at a point … when I have time to sit down and do it. I wish my mom would have done it. My intention is to give it to my children to read and pass it on to my grandchildren.”

She hopes to have a book ready for Christmas 2015. One chapter will be “Angels Watching over Me,” based on what she thinks were significant strokes of luck in her life.

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Memoirs can be organized many ways, but “the worst way is in chronology,” said Loft teacher Gail Milstein. “There are huge chunks of people’s lives that are just too boring.”

It’s better, she said, to focus on “turning points, accomplishments, things that haunt us, things that stick in your mind.” She advises students to explore episodes that were packed with meaning and emotion, whether funny or frightening, fascinating or perplexing.

What to tell and what to leave out is a delicate issue for memoirists, said Milstein, whose sister knows “there’s a certain box in my basement that she’s going to burn upon my death.”

The main thing is to consider your audience, Milstein said. When writing for young family members, the writer may want to convey values and offer life lessons — or simply tell what life was like long ago. In any case, Milstein said, the outcome will be enhanced by the use of vivid detail and concrete examples. She knew a woman who wrote a “list-poem” entitled “Things I Learned From My Mom.” A straightforward structure is to write a letter that gives the flavor of the family with recipes and family sayings.

Brian Malloy is a novelist who teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota and the Loft. He urges people who are interviewing family members to create a family history to fact-check as much as possible with calendars and historical research.

“Memory is fluid, and how they remember things may not be accurate,” he said.

It helps to begin without preconceived notions, Malloy said, “being open to the stories that they tell, listening, and being curious first and judgmental a very distant second.”

Also, family stories are more compelling and understandable when set in a historical context, he said: For example, the reason Grandma was a bootlegger may be because it was her only alternative when Prohibition passed and she had children to feed.

Loft teacher Milstein said the process of memoir writing has a side benefit.

“You’re going to be able to use it to connect not only to your own life but also to your family … generations who will have this passed on to them,” she said. Writing about one’s own life is essentially living it twice: “The first time you live, your life shapes you. When you write about your life, you are shaping it.”

It is literally, she said, “the gift of a lifetime.”

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For the person who doesn’t have the time or ability to create a memoir, or who wants a more polished product, professionals can help.

Former Minnesotan Mary O’Brien Tyrrell, past president of the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review, has written books for 300 clients and teaches others how to videotape interviews, ghostwrite books and arrange family book-signing events.

“Doing the writing is a lot of work, and not everybody has the skills to do that,” Tyrrell said. She would begin with a deceptively simple question, asking about the subject’s very first memory.

“And then they start to reminisce,” Tyrrell said. “I pretend I’m 12 years old and I’m the grandchild wanting to know their story.”

From several two-hour recording sessions with an individual, Tyrrell would create a hardcover book. She sometimes preserved the recorded interviews on CDs. And she would make an appointment for Minnesota Historical Society staff to look at the book and decide whether to include it in the state’s collection.

“It’s just so valuable, you can’t measure what a treasure you have in your hands,” Tyrrell said.

Tyrrell’s personal-history business was typically with older people whose relatives had arranged for the interview and who sometimes protested that their lives were unremarkable — until they started to reflect on how they had lived.

Tyrrell recalls working with a 52-year-old woman who was dying of breast cancer.

“She said to me, ‘Now that you’re asking me all these questions, I realize that I had a very wonderful life.’”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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