COLUMBIA — Seven women listen attentively in a secluded corner of The Upper Crust. An eighth, Mary Ray, speaks softly over the light piano music in the background.
Ray tells the story of a harmless game of spin the bottle she played when she was 16. Little did she know then that one of the boys there would become her husband of 68 years.
In "Sailor's Mail," Marsha Knudsen, a member of Winn's Orphaned Writers, draws on her parents' letters and diaries to tell their World War II love story. It was the early years of a marriage that would last 63 years.
These are the kinds of stories the women of Winn's Orphaned Writers work to preserve.
Members of the memoir-writing group have met on Tuesday mornings since its creation in the spring of 2008. They gather to share their writings, encourage one another, preserve the past and provide companionship.
The group began as an extension of a memoir-writing class taught by Winifred "Winn" Horner at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. When she became sick and could no longer teach the class, her "orphaned writers" began meeting on their own, in addition to attending class with a new instructor. Although Horner died in February, the group's members continue the love of writing she nurtured in them.
"I remember the first class with Winn, she said, 'Write your life history in three words,'" Pat Holt, an original member of WOW, recalled at a meeting July 15.
"With as wordy as I am, I would've had to write 'just shoot me,'" Marsha Knudsen replied. Knudsen joined the group in fall 2008 after being invited by a friend, Marsha Sisson.
The members often encourage one another to organize and publish their writings or use them as gifts for family members. At the meeting, Sheila Bailey shared "New Room," one of 70 stories about her and her sister, which she will present to her sister on Dec. 29, her sister's 70th birthday.
The year was 1954, and the sisters had just moved into separate rooms for the first time.
"I loved opening up the bay windows for the cool breezes off the bay," Bailey read.
Some of the members write stories about the present instead of the past. Sisson writes letters to her 3-year-old grandson to present to him when he's older. The stories cover day-to-day events, milestones in the boy's life and reflections on his mother's life.
At the meeting, Sisson read about the family getting a new car and how her grandson cried because he didn't recognize it. She wrote about cars her daughter — his mother — used to own, including a 1964 restored Volkswagen Beetle that never ran well.
"The doors never locked, either, but she looked daring driving around town," Sisson read.
The women of WOW have also been trying to preserve Columbia's history. Member Reba Krehbiel often writes about her childhood in Columbia, and the others have urged her to publish the writings.
Krehbiel brought a story she wrote in 2010 about the Heibel-March Drug Store, which she recalls as just Heibel's drugstore. Sisson read it to the group for her. "Heibel's drugstore was the center of our little world," Sisson said.
Built in 1910, the building still stands at 902 Rangeline St. Krehbiel wrote about the penny candies, double bubble gum and Tootsie Rolls she used to buy after school, and the little tables at the back of the store where she'd share a Coke with her friends.
"Heibel's was a store full of memories," Sisson read. "I think it is going to change into something else entirely because there is no one left that went there. Sometimes, I feel that the ghost of a drugstore lingers at the door, and all I have to do is open it and it will be the same old Heibel's again."
One reason the women believe it's important to publish Krehbiel's writings is because they think people who live in Columbia now deserve the opportunity to understand its history.
"The stories that Reba writes about growing up in Columbia — it's almost like an old-time movie," Holt said.
Holt and Knudsen have published memoirs before. In "An Eclectic Life," Holt wrote about her life growing up in New York in the 1940s and compiled a visual history of the flooding in the area, "Major Floods of Pleasant Valley." Knudsen published a memoir, "Sailor's Mail," created from a collection of letters, diaries and scrapbooks recording her parents' World War II love story.
"I always wanted to write about my life, but I didn't think I could," Holt said. "I never wrote anything before I did my class."
The group helps keep the women, who range from their 60s to mid-80s, feeling young, and it helps them foster friendship. It enables them to "remember the good old days," Holt said.
The group has affected her life in lovely ways, she said.
"Think about how things have changed; my life wouldn't be as full and fun," she said.
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