It was a Christmas to remember: the one with the sad-looking tree. Many decades have passed since that holiday, but Susan Molloy recalls clearly how when she was child her father waited until Christmas Eve to find a tree, only to end up with a scrawny one. After he got home, he drilled holes into the trunk all the way up the tree so he could glue in branches and extra twigs to fill the gaps.
This childhood memory is one of many that Molloy and seven other Midpeninsula women have penned in the new memoir "Our Voices, Our Stories: A Collection of Memoirs," capturing snippets of their lives growing up in various parts of the world from the 1940s to their present-day lives as older adults on the Peninsula.
The authors, Molloy, Ann Gila, Kris Klint, Anne-Marie Lemoine, Maureen McNevin Locke, Barbara Nachman, Kinga Perlaki and Jacqueline Raine, all met in a memoir writing class at Avenidas senior center in Palo Alto, where they ended up compiling the 44 short stories in the book. The stories recount everything from living in Europe during World War II, surviving a deadly virus and living through a terrorist attack to holidays spent with family.
Each account shares one common thread: The authors wrote them to document their life stories as a legacy for the next generations of their families.
Molloy said her daughter had been asking her for years to write down some of the family stories. It wasn't until joining the class that Molloy's life stories started pouring out onto the page.
"I joined the class hoping to jump-start my efforts and perhaps learn how to write better. I've written about 25-30 stories now and have lots more to write," Molloy said. "There's a definite advantage for me to write in the class setting. Sometimes a story one of the others brings to class jogs a memory of my own or inspires me to write about a similar time or event."
Perlaki, who penned four stories in the book, said the class provides "supportive camaraderie" and constructive criticism, which helped her document memories she has wanted to write since she was in her 20s.
After living through World War II, experiencing the Nazis, then the Soviet occupation and a revolution, Perlaki said didn't want her stories to be forgotten.
One of her stories in the memoir recounts her time as a small child in Hungary. "The Explosion of Margit Bridge," tells the story of how her brother wanted the family to take a ferry across the Danube River. When they were halfway across, the bridge they would have driven over exploded.
"Some of these recollections blend together," she writes. "I can recall bits and pieces, but the gaps between them are wide and full of parts unknown. Yet out of this dark abyss some scenes can suddenly emerge with such clarity and details that they could have happened yesterday."
Nachman, a former newspaper features writer who contributed stories to the book, helped launch the Avenidas Memoir-writing Workshop in 2019. As the instructor, she melds the mindset of fiction writing with teaching memoir.
"All the people in my classes benefit from how to write a memoir as opposed to writing essays. What makes memoir-writing different is it's very much like fiction," Nachman said. There are characters, settings, action. The memoir brings stories to life in a "show, don't tell" way, using all five senses.
"We're not talking about autobiography. Biography is a road, when you're born to the end. A memoir is more like a curve in the road something that happened."
Nachman believes strongly in making sure writers use their own voices and syntax in their writing. "Their voices may be long sentences. Someone else's may be choppy. I want it to be in their syntax, the voice and personality of the writer," she said.
Avenidas Center Director Tracy McCloud said most people over 70 have many stories to tell, from life overseas or during a war, or how they experienced family and careers over the span of seven or eight decades.
"I think it's important that we capture those stories," McCloud said.
Each week during the class, one writer signs up to read their work while the others critique it, offering suggestions and constructive criticism.
"The help, encouragement and advice that I have received has been a great help in my endeavor," said Lemoine, whose stories in the book comically detail her childhood in a medieval city near France's Loire Valley.
She said finding a new way to write her memoirs has been enlightening.
"It was to write them with a very personal viewpoint. In other words, it was alright to be the center of your story," said Lemoine, who recounts in the book the time her mother made her a bright-green felt hat she dreaded wearing to church.
Perlaki said documenting her stories has been one of the wisest things she's ever done. She sees great value in sharing stories.
"The one common element that emerged during in-class discussions is that we all realize how little we know about our parents and grandparents," said Perlaki. "Now we all say, 'I wish I would have asked more questions when they were alive.'
"Class or no class, I would encourage everybody to preserve their life stories or memoirs for the benefit of their family."