Writers ages 55 and older contribute memoirs, biography, fiction and poetry in this collection
CANANDAIGUA — “Zuzu” is the title of the first in a collection of short stories published in “Before I Forget — Short Stories from Collective Voices,” a collaborative writing project coordinated by John Robert Allen.
The new book contains memoirs, poetry, fiction, and biography written by 21 different individuals all over the age of 55. Most reside in The Villas, a Canandaigua development off Middle Cheshire Road. Some, like Allen, the author of “Zuzu,” have already had their works published. For other contributors, this may be the first time their thoughts have been expressed in print form for the public to read.
The result is a delightful blend of poignant, amusing, imaginative, and informative tales that vary in length and style.
“I presented the idea for the book at my writing group and it expanded to 20-plus folks with a theme of ‘55 plus’ writers, mainly from The Villas,” said Allen.
Like several others, Allen was a longtime educator. Since retirement he has written five books, including an autobiography. His writing group, which is open to the public, meets to find encouragement and receive help in moving forward on whatever work they are pursuing, Allen said.
“It also helps me to be sharp with suggestions for completing their work,” Allen said.
In “Zuzu,” the author contrasts two well-known but completely different identities of Seneca Falls. He recalls frequenting ZUZU, a coffee shop there named after a character in the classic 1940s Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Every December, a festival there celebrates the Seneca County community’s similarity to the movie’s fictional Bedford Falls. Seneca Falls has also played a pivotal role in the women’s rights movement and Allen’s story is especially timely with 2020 marking the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the vote.
Jewel Wink, a retired teacher and educational evaluator, contributed “No Ordinary First Lady” about first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Wink said it was prompted by reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the Roosevelts and visiting Val Kill, Eleanor’s cottage home at Hyde Park, Dutchess County.
“To think of what she accomplished in her lifetime with her husband, six children, the difficulties she endured always working on the greater good of the country, just blows my mind,” said Wink, who belongs to the Finger Lakes Writers for Literacy as well as the Canandaigua Writers Group, the latter of which meets monthly at Canandaigua’s Wood Library.
The collection offers plenty of variety.
Laurie Stoutz describes the adaptations made by generations of a family to a cottage in “Wood, Stain, And Electrical Outlets.” Carol Eiffert recounts a visit to Chicago and its sights. Linda Qrell-Fair recalls a long walk back to the family’s Keuka Lake cottage, while Reneta Rebar remembers trips and friendships made in Barbados with her spouse. Barbara Kutner tells about horseback riding adventures prompted by a teenage crush.
One author describes meeting the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler on Granger Street in Canandaigua, while another reveals the personal challenges faced when a family member suffers a serious health crisis.
“It was the sharing of moments in time that shaped the person’s outlook, whether humorous or sad, but something not known about the person,” said author Julie Cummins. “The common thread in all of the others in the book is memories, a piece of fabric in the individuals’ lives.”
The former children’s librarian and respected children’s literature specialist has written several books for younger readers. Like a few of the other authors, she submitted more than one story to the collective project.
Previously unpublished are her short biography, “Motorcycle Queen: Bessie Stringfield,” which introduces a little-known African American woman who performed daring stunts on her Harley Davidson motorcycles, and “Meet the Other Seven Dwarfs,” an original story that Cummins said was prompted by a clue in a crossword puzzle.
“Before I Forget” took less than six months from beginning to its completion at the end of October, with everyone donating equal funds toward its publication. The book’s cover is an original watercolor painting by the late Doris Kane, the mother of Allen’s partner Steve. Its loose brushwork depicts a fenced path leading along a densely forested setting.
“John Allen’s impetus in gathering our group, offering his knowledge, and continually inspiring our writers has been such a bonus to everyone,” said Wink.
The soft cover edition of “Before I Forget” costs $13.99 and the e-book, $3.99. It is available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. In January it will be available to order at The Paperback Place on Main Street in Canandaigua.
Meet the writers
Those who contributed stories to “Before I Forget”:
John Robert Allen
Laura Jo Smith