For more than 20 years, elder members of the community have been gathering at the Massapequa Bar Harbour Library to record their memories for prosperity.
These are the personal tales left untold in history books, but nonetheless poignant. The program is known as Writing Our Stories, and according to Mary Haughey, who heads it up, it’s a vital outlet.
“The purpose is to give our seniors a voice,” she said. “To give them a chance to express themselves, talk about their childhood, growing up, travel experiences, challenges in their lives. We bring a lot to the table…it’s important for seniors to have this outlet, because as we get older, we become more isolated, especially when spouses pass away and we’re alone. This gives them something to look forward to, a reason to get out of the house.”
Haughey, a Copiague resident, was a member of Writing Our Stories herself for about five years until the woman running it decided to retire; Massapequa librarian Lee Gundel thought that Haughey would make a great replacement due to both her sensitivity and her passion for writing.
“She tried it out for a few sessions, and she did really well with it…her group is so popular now that it sometimes causes parking issues here, especially today,” he said.
Haughey, who had been a writer all her life — her first poem was published when she was seven years old in the long-defunct Brooklyn Eagle newspaper — was hesitant to take over the group at first, she said.
“I was worried that they wouldn’t like me because I came from the ranks,” she said. “But Lee really encouraged me to try it, and it’s been eight years now and they’ve accepted me. They’re good people, kind people, and I’m very happy to be working with them.”
Writing Our Stories, which runs for two sessions a year (each eight to 10 weeks long), consists of Haughey giving a “homework assignment” of sorts to its members each week; typically a paper that is to be written on a topic quite personal to the writer, which can be shared with other members once completed.
“When you have a writing group, there has to be an element of trust in the room, because we are revealing things about ourselves that sometimes not even our families will know,” she said. “Of course, a writing group is only as good as the people that come, and a writing group is only as good as the assignments that you give them. For example, if I come in and ask them what their favorite color is, that’s it…they’re done. But if I ask them to write a letter to someone — living or dead — that they have unfinished business with…now you’ve got something to think about.”
Haughey also spoke about another one of her favorite assignment topics, one that truly deals with the concepts of mortality and legacy…the writing of a Last Will and Testament, but with an unusual twist.
“Most of these are older people, so this is an important exercise for them, I think,” she said. “However, the way I have them write their wills, you can’t give away anything tangible like a car or jewelry or even a skateboard…so, what’s left? You. I gave my smile to one of my sons who doesn’t know how to smile. I gave my ability to sing to someone. And to someone else, I left the five most important words in the English language…’I’m sorry, I love you.’ You have to leave the parts of you that matter most to those that matter most.”
After all of the stories have been written, at the end of each session Lee Gundel and the library produce a book containing the participants’ favorite picks from among their writings.
“We make copies of the book to give to the people in the group to read aloud in the class, and to share with friends and family members,” he said. “It’s also catalogued in the library, so if anyone wants to come in and read it, they can.”
Thomas K. Lloyd, a 50-year Massapequa resident and author of Successful Stock Signals for Traders and Portfolio Managers, said that he actually drew inspiration to write his financial trading tome from participating in Haughey’s Writing Our Stories sessions.
“I’ve been taking this class for about five years…initially, my wife wanted to come and take the class, and I came along and really enjoyed it,” he said. “It’s fantastic because you get a chance to write about all the things that you’ve experienced in life…things that you want to pass onto your kids, your family, all the little stories that you’ve never written down. In a sense, it’s cathartic.”