BY CARA S. TRAGER
Special to Newsday
About six years ago, Vincent Manago began journeying into the past. Every so often, he would retreat to his second-floor home office in Manhasset and, amid family photos, historic books and antique furnishings, jot down anecdotes about his growing-up years in Brooklyn.
Within a year, the retired CPA filled reams of paper with remembrances of his large Italian-American family in the 1950s and 1960s; the lifetime friendships that took root during his childhood; and the local Roman Catholic church that anchored the community, brought his friends together as altar boys and fueled their unresolved search for its rumored third attic.
Today, those narratives and many others form Manago’s 317-page personal memoir, “The Third Attic and Other Brooklyn Stories,” self-published two years ago and available at amazon.com.
“I am a family man, and I believe family is the most important thing in our lives, and the book’s purpose is to keep the family bound,” said Manago, 71, who retired 18 years ago as vice president and chief accounting officer at Avis. He now volunteers as an assistant to chaplains at North Shore University Hospital and St. Francis Hospital. “Everyone should do this because future generations will want to know more about you.” Married 46 years, he and his wife, Carol, 73, have a son, Gregory, 39, and three grandchildren.
Although there are no statistics on older Long Islanders who have recently penned their life’s story — for their families, the general public or both — the number appears to be growing. Along with more baby boomers entering their retirement years — and contemplating the lives they have led and the legacies they wish to leave — memoir-writing workshops are cropping up throughout Long Island, at public libraries, in senior centers and as part of adult education programs. (Nationally, published memoirs abound, with a search on Amazon turning up nearly 99,000 results, including those by former U.S. presidents, Hollywood celebrities and Holocaust survivors.)
While the personal memoir can be a sweet journey down memory lane and even provide authors with new revelations about themselves, it can also trigger stinging remembrances. Under such circumstances, memoir writing can be therapeutic, said Gayle Berg, a psychologist whose Roslyn practice includes older adults.
“Writing about any kind of experiences is an excellent way for people to process and metabolize painful experiences and to put them into the context of their life,” said Berg. And with the passage of time, memoirists can reflect on those experiences from a “safe enough distance.”
As Manago compiled his personal history, for example, he was forced to recall his boyhood worries during his father’s frequent epileptic seizures. “That affected me, and it made me who I am,” Manago said, noting that his father’s condition, after many years, improved with the advent of a new drug.
The writing process also reignited Manago’s unpleasant memories of his academically rigorous Catholic high school. Amid the children of doctors and dentists, Manago suffered socially as the child of struggling immigrants.
“I felt out of place,” he said. “They had living rooms; we had everything in the kitchen.”
‘WHAT WAS IN MY HEART’
Two years ago, Hewlett resident Esther Bogen, 93, self-published “Short Memoirs of a Long Life” to validate what her generation experienced during the Depression and World War II. She began to chronicle her 242-page book in 2009, a year after retiring from working in a medical office and enrolling in a writing workshop at the Center for Adult Life Enrichment in Hewlett, she said.
“I would sit down to the computer, and write from what I knew and from what was in my heart,” said Bogen, who has a son, Bob, 68, and daughter, Wendy, 64, and five grandchildren.
Writing the personal memoir not only rekindled Bogen’s recollections of being a young Army wife trailing her husband until he was sent overseas to fight in the European Theater. It also forced her to recall the angst that gripped her when her “sweet” spouse returned “a hardened man” from the war, she said. Their tumultuous 33-year marriage ended in 1975 with his death from an aneurysm.
Bogen’s memoir recounts her “hoo-ha” adventures in the year that followed as a single woman exploring nudist camps and observing swinger lifestyles. In 1976, she married the “love of her life,” Stanley Becker, and they celebrated 25 years together until his death from mesothelioma. In all, Bogen has had four serious relationships, including her current 93-year-old partner, who has serious health issues; she serves as his caretaker.
“I’ve always been open, and there’s nothing in the book I’m embarrassed about,” said Bogen, noting, with pride, that her son has given a bunch of her books to friends.
Personally, she said, the memoir has given her great comfort in knowing that her long-term memory is still strong. It has also made Bogen think better of herself.
“It made me understand that I have a lot of inner strength for most things that life has demanded of me,” she said.
SHARING WHAT HE’S LEARNED
Shirley resident Harris R. Cohen, 69, took a year to write his self-help book that relies on episodes from his personal life and professional chiropractic practice to illustrate its overarching theme: Challenges can be positive, transformative experiences.
“Lessons Learned, How to Negotiate the Life You Want to Live,” available at amazon.com), the 106-page tome published four years ago, encompasses the years Cohen suffered from bullying and low self-esteem as an overweight adolescent. Yet, he credits his beloved father’s cutting words, “You have the fattest ass I have ever seen in my life,” with driving him, at the age of 19, to shed 60 pounds, which immeasurably improved the way he saw himself and his outlook on life.
In the same vein, his divorce after 28 years of marriage filled him with despair, but it also motivated him to compile a wish list of attributes that he sought in his ideal woman. That list was satisfied almost entirely by his marriage 14 years ago to his second wife, Corinne, now 62, said Cohen, who has a son, Joshua, 38, and two grandchildren.
Although Cohen has turned his life into an open book by airing his insecurities in his memoir, he said he has no regrets. “I am what I am,” he noted, adding, “I poured my heart and soul into it, hoping that people would understand what I went through, and that I might be able help them a little bit.”