MANKATO – People always told Mankato resident Anita Dittrich that she should write a memoir about her experiences as an American immigrant and “displaced person” during World War II.
Dittrich, 87, was born in Latvia and lived there until 1944, when her mother and grandmother chose to flee the Soviet regime preparing to rule the nation in Eastern Europe.
Traveling by horse and buggy from northeastern Latvia to the country’s capital, his family soon began a series of stays in camps for internally displaced people run across Allied-occupied United Nations Germany.
It wasn’t until she made a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, years ago, that she was struck by the parallels between her own experience and that of Jews in Europe.
The revelation meant it was time for her to write.
“Passing into the museum’s covered wagon made me shiver,” she writes of an exhibit showing how groups of Jews were transported. She knew these cars intimately; she had been in one.
The story is one of three written by Dittrich that are included in a collection recently released by Mankato’s VINE Memoir Writers group. The group is hosting a launch party for their book, “Preserving Memories,” Monday at noon at the VINE Adult Community Center.
The book of memoirs features 57 stories by 21 authors, which were narrowed down from more than 120 submissions, according to a press release.
Linda Good, a former Minnesota State University professor and co-founder of the memory group, led the project amid coronavirus lockdowns that have banned the two dozen writers from their regular weekly meetings.
Less time together meant more time at home compiling and editing stories, most of which were written years ago by contributors.
There isn’t a single type of story that characterizes the book, Good said. It is divided into sections that range from moments of inspiration to unexpected events that shape perspective.
Some people have written about trips around the world or beautiful times in nature. One contributor wrote about his childhood experience playing with paper dolls.
In her poem, local writer Kathleen Schuetz compares the evolution of a sapling to an old tree to the aging of humans, with an emphasis on watching your grandfather grow old.
“His fingers ran lovingly over the wood as he took a haggard breath. He said, “There is a time to live … and a time to die. I have grown old and it is time for me to go… just like this tree, ”she writes.
Schuetz keeps an old piece of petrified wood from the tree, she writes in a postscript, to remember her grandfather.
Good said sharing the work publicly marks a change for memoir writers, who have long been told that what they read aloud should be kept within the group. If a story resonates, the members are told, excluding the name of its author while telling it.
“We want people to feel open to talking about both good and bad about their lives and their struggles,” she said.
Oddly enough, she also told the writers of VINE to get rid of the illusion that their work would be published.
A donation from a band member and a $ 4,000 grant from the Prairie Arts Council gave the dreamers a chance to make it happen.
All proceeds from their books, which can be purchased for $ 20 at the launch or in the following weeks at the Adult Community Center, will fund VINE’s artistic programming. The books are also sold at the VINE Home Thrift Store.
Challenges before publication
Considering the age range of writers, 60 to 90, not all are computer savvy. Some wrote memoirs by hand, which someone had to secure and then transcribe.
To include the writings of members in nursing homes, like co-founder Carole Petersen, Good had to face a more difficult hurdle.
At first, no one could visit Petersen because the skilled nursing facility where she lived prohibited foreigners. Good, however, was determined to publish the work of her “slowly fading” friend.
Eventually, Good went to the retirement home where her friend had moved to collect handwritten or typed material, then left and retyped the copy herself.
Petersen died of natural causes in July, two months before her 87th birthday. Although she has never seen the collection of stories in its published form, three of her writings are included.
In a Good song read aloud, titled “Born into Wealth,” Petersen recalls his upbringing on his family’s farm in Nebraska. The title is a play about his parents’ meager lifestyle, which often involved turning things into toys, tools, and clothing instead of buying those new goods.
“I feel so lucky to have had my frugal parents who trained me to honor natural resources and develop ways to use our limited possessions,” Petersen wrote.
“We’re definitely developing friendships,” said Dittrich, who joined the group about six years ago, of Petersen’s death. “We feel the loss. When they leave and when they die, we definitely feel the loss. “
Writers are part of a demographic that was ravaged by disease during the pandemic. To meet, it took a little creativity.
The members first met in a parking lot, Good said, each arriving in their separate vehicles and forming two lines moving in opposite directions. Drivers parked next to other cars, rolled down their windows, talked for 5-10 minutes, then drove to another location to repeat the process.
Eventually, they met in Spring Lake Park, sitting 6 feet apart and wearing masks. The VINE Community Center reopened this summer and the writers had a ‘homecoming’.
“We have become such advocates of memoir writing because it is so beneficial for us and such a joy to listen to the stories of others,” Good said.
Writing memories benefits aging adults by keeping their cognitive skills up to date, Good noted. Sharing the stories is a balm of isolation that many seniors have felt during the pandemic.
The combination can be a catharsis. “We shed tears sometimes,” Good said.
Dittrich, who has lived in Mankato since 1951 and completed her two years of high school here, found the memory group through another program she took at VINE.
A man was leaving his spelling group to attend the weekly memoir meeting, still urging her to join him.
“He kept telling me, ‘You should come and write your story. Finally, I broke down, went with him, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
His other two stories in the book are about impressive encounters with nature and a series of incidents that started with a glass of water spilled.
Once a week at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Dittrich said, she and others share written experiences they want to remember.
Some people want to preserve memories for their children or grandchildren. Others just want someone to listen and understand.
“We write and we share what we have written to each other,” she said. “And we don’t criticize – we especially appreciate what others have written.”