Justine Kuntz: A 20-page Memoir Can Be a Treasured Gift

Guest article by Justine Kuntz

Justine Kuntz
My friend Nancy and I wrote a memoir of her husband Tony, although he was a reluctant participant. Tony had been captured in Africa during World War II. He spent 14 months as a wounded soldier in an Italian prison camp and then in two German prison camps. He was discharged from the U.S. Army totally disabled.

I had heard some of his stories and asked whether we could write about them together. Although he was a great storyteller, he always refused by saying, “They’re too painful to talk about.” However, he repeatedly told certain ones to Nancy and a few to my husband and me and friends over dinner after he had a glass or two of wine. The stories never changed and needed to be written for his grandsons, if for no one else.

A memoir takes shape
Nancy and I crafted a 20-page memoir with some of his war photos and an appendix of World War II information I found on the Internet. Tony’s 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division has a site which provides a brief history and made a perfect foreword for his memoir. Plus, the Red Cross has online debriefings from their inspections of German prison camps. These provided the “official story” of prison conditions. Tony’s stories provide the “real” conditions and how methods were contrived to present the “official” condition unbeknown to the International Red Cross during their inspections.

Nancy and I walked the beach each Saturday morning and discussed the stories I had written from memory that week. I also gave her a list of questions to casually ask Tony at their leisure. These conversations usually took place as they read the newspaper over breakfast and commented on global events. This time was a natural opportunity for brief discussion that provided the memoir details and often set him to reminiscing further. She would say, “When you were in …” and this or that happened. “Tell me again, why did...” Inadvertently, he provided the details and sometimes enough detail to begin a new story. Some stories ran only one paragraph. We arranged them chronologically and separated them by lines of asterisks.

Nancy framed his medals, ten of them, in a shadow box. She had sent for them years earlier through the Army but never had done anything with them. I found a website explaining the significance of the ribbons and medals displayed in the shadow box, including the Purple Heart. We incorporated the information into an appendix along with telegrams, maps, and photographs of prison and his inmates. His parents had kept telegrams from the War Department and from ham radio operators who contacted his parents with information regarding his capture in Africa, his injuries, transport, and locations.

A gift for Tony
We presented the memoir to Tony for his 80th birthday. Six of us sat around the table and cried as he opened the gift; then we all laughed at ourselves crying. Such a memorable occasion! Through tears Tony said, “I knew something was going on but I never expected this.” Although the memoir covers only 18 months, that time controlled the rest of his life and ultimately Nancy’s too. They met when he was in Cushing Army Hospital recovering from his extensive injuries.

Tony proudly gave fifteen copies of his memoir to extended family members. Two great-grandchildren have been added to the family since then. Their father covets the memoir for his children to read about their great-grandfather’s World War II experiences.

Nancy helps others
Some years later in my memoir class, Nancy continued to write her stories of their years after the war. These she sent to siblings as she wrote them. Her classic comments in class were: “One thing I realize after doing only a few stories. Our phone calls are no longer about aches and pains. We laugh and enjoy our childhood all over again as we reminisce. They help me fill in the detail.”

Hers was a different kind of therapy and class members reaped ideas from her insight into the benefits of writing memoirs; another human interest story on mining treasures by writing one’s life stories.

Justine Kuntz teaches memoir writing classes at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in Boca Raton, Florida. She is a retired teacher of high school English. Photo courtesy Justine Kuntz.

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