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Making a Memoir a Reality

At 87, she wrote her life story and created a family treasure


Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report

When my mother was a teenager, she got to meet the most famous athlete of the 20th century.

It was 1947. Babe Ruth, by then stricken with throat cancer, granted my mom and her sister a private audience in the beautiful Manhattan apartment he shared with his wife, Claire. The girls, accompanied by their mother, were awestruck as the now-retired Sultan of Swat autographed photos and chatted amiably with them about baseball in a painfully raspy voice. My mom didn’t have the heart to tell the Babe, who would die a year later, that she was a fan of her hometown Chicago White Sox.

My mom was celebrating her recent high school graduation with a train trip from Chicago to New York where she rode the coasters at Coney Island, beheld the Statue of Liberty and dined at the Stork Club. The visit with Babe was a complete surprise — arranged by her businessman father and one of his confidants in New York City.

Mom was a nurse, a teacher and a homemaker but never a writer. She didn’t use a computer. Still, she had a life story to tell.

This memorable trip is among the many delicious moments captured in a self-published 2011 memoir written by my mom, Jean Oliver Lawler, for her 12 grandchildren. In good health at age 87 and calling a senior living center outside Chicago home, she titled her 115-page book How Do You Eat an Elephant? (One Bite at a Time). It’s an aphorism she often summoned to buck up her six children when facing a daunting challenge — and a motivational mantra she relied on to persist in the writing and publication of the memoir.

Her Memoir: a Challenging Endeavor

Mom was a nurse, a teacher and a homemaker, but never a writer. She didn’t use a computer. Still, she had a life story to tell.

Not long after my father died, she enrolled in a creative writing class at the community center near her home. The instructor’s feedback on her initial drafts was blunt.

Memoir writing was first and foremost personal, he told her. Facts are important, but what makes them interesting is how you feel about the facts. Her initial drafts lacked in this area, he admonished.

Next Avenue_Memoir_LawlerFor further guidance, Mom read several memoirs, including some written by her friends. She found she was bored by autobiographies that unfolded chronologically, much preferring memoirs featuring vividly poignant vignettes from throughout the writer’s life.

One day, she bumped into a lifelong friend in a diner. Lorraine had just written her own memoir and had a copy in her car. She encouraged my mom to press on in her quest and offered to transcribe any handwritten material. Mom was inspired, and Lorraine made good on her offer.

In addition, Mom was coached and critiqued by her granddaughter (my niece) Moira Lawler, a gifted writer and editor. She implored my mother to write, write, write.

Mom spilled a series of engaging hand-written vignettes on to legal pads over the course of a year. But at some point, the project stalled. She was getting frustrated and feared her grandchildren would never get to read her memoir.

As a professional writer and editor, I’m an old hand at wrangling copy to get an article or an entire publication into print or online. So I stepped in to help.

A Natural Writer

As with any project, there were loose ends — in this case, computer files of transcribed chapters and a stack of handwritten chapters I needed to transcribe and edit. But I was struck by how well my mother expressed herself on the written page. Her writing was lovely and simply stated. She had an innate sense for plot. My role as an editor was minimal.

The memoir’s tone was largely celebratory — featuring vignettes of wonderful vacations, great friendships, a 57-year marriage and the achievements of her children. There were expressions of gratitude as well as stories about her grandparents and parents. It was filled with family lore that was new — not only to her grandchildren — but also to me. Interspersed throughout the pages were more than 70 photographs that illustrated her life’s special moments.

One chapter was titled “The Aunt and Uncle You Never Knew.” Sadly, it recounted the deaths of two of her children: an infant named Eileen Mary and 19-year-old son Danny, who died in a car accident. I’ve always admired Mom’s and Dad’s fortitude and faith in the face of the staggering loss of two children. The memoir, a family treasure, ensures that memories of her beloved Eileen Mary and Danny will live on in the next generation.

In the memoir’s conclusion, my mother offers some final advice for her grandchildren. “Top of my list is prayer,” she wrote, “God is there to guide you through life, if you ask.”

In reading and editing my mother’s memoir, I learned things about her life I never knew. She is inspiring me to write my own for the benefit of my two sons. Too much in life goes unsaid. A thoughtful and honest memoir can resolve some of the mystery.

Despite having made a living by writing — and almost always about someone other than me — the thought of penning my own memoir is daunting. But thanks to Mom, I know what to do. She taught me how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

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