For ten years the City of Boston and the writing center Grub Street have collaborated on The Memoir Project, offering eight-week writing workshops to seniors in all neighborhoods of Boston and then publishing anthologies of their short memoir pieces. Ever since I heard about the project several years ago, I have been proud of Boston’s involvement in such a worthwhile endeavor and the support of our late, beloved Mayor Thomas Menino. I treasure my copies of all the volumes and have read every essay with keen interest and enjoyment and attended some of the public readings.
On Wednesday evening May 11 there was a celebration of the release of the fifth and final volume, Streets of Echoes: Stories from Boston’s Most Enduring Neighborhoods, Back Bay-Fenway, Beacon Hill-West End, and Dorchester. It was a beautiful spring late afternoon, and I walked over the bridge to the Seaport District, stopping to have tea at a table on Fan Pier looking back at the downtown skyline. The event was held at the new District Hall, in the midst of all the intense construction in the Seaport.
Michelle Seaton, who taught writing workshops in all the neighborhoods, told us the senior participants generally start out saying nothing important ever happened to them, so they don’t know what they’ll have to write about. By the end of the eight weeks, their notebooks are brimming with stories and they don’t know how they’ll fit them all in. Each person is then assigned to a writing coach to help them hone their selected story for the publication. Some of the seniors have had previous writing experience, and others are quite new to writing.
Mayor Walsh also spoke and seemed sincere in his interest and support for the Memoir Project and the important work the senior writers have done for the city. He said his own grandfather was fifteen in Ireland at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising, and he wishes he could have heard his first-hand account of what it was like to live through those times. He promised to read all the stories in the book and give a pad and pen to his mother the next time he visits her. Richard Hoffman, poet and memoirist and senior writer-in-residence at Emerson College, spoke of memoir as “defiance against oblivion” and praised the senior writers for telling the truth about their experience. He said he keeps copies of the Memoir Project books in his office and refers students to them often.
I had tears in my eyes through much of the speeches. I believe so much in the importance of people telling their stories. Everyone has a story, and if it is not told in some form, it is lost to humanity forever. I think the most important work of the older years is looking back and reflecting on one’s life and making something of it, in some form. This is what I intend to devote my retirement years to.
In the last two weeks I’ve been going through the four boxes of Peter’s mother’s photos and papers that we saved when she died in 2003. At the time I was too busy with work and major home renovations to deal with them, and we sent the boxes down to the basement storage room. Now I’m doing my best to make sense of the traces of Peter’s mother’s life, mostly photos. Most of them are not labeled, and Peter can’t identify many of the people, beyond his parents and grandparents. He can barely recognize his own mother when she was young. He hardly knows his father, who died when he was two. It’s poignant to see these photos of people in the 1920s and 30s, most of whom have departed this world by now, and we don’t even know their names and have no way of knowing who they were. Peter did not get many stories from his mother, whether because he wasn’t curious or because that generation didn’t talk much about themselves, but I am going to sit with him soon and write up what he remembers, start with an outline or timeline. I’ve already scanned the best of the photos, and I will try to put together some of the stories.
The stories of the “extraordinary ordinary people,” as Michelle Seaton called them, in Streets of Echoes cover an astounding range of experiences, many of which intersect with the large historical events and political struggles of the twentieth century. My favorites, because I am so interested in everyday life, are accounts of the way daily life was in past times. I am endlessly fascinated with the small, homey details of life in Boston neighborhoods before my time here.
The Memoir Project, like the Gloucester Community Quilts project, is an outstanding example of involving seniors in creating work of lasting value. I hope the books of memoirs will be in schools and libraries all over the city and live on for years and years to come. They will have an honored place in my own library, and they inspire me to continue my efforts to tell my own stories.