Mutti makes a memoir

[Alyson Kuhn] Margarete Aust McNeice celebrated her 87th birthday last week, on March 27. She has wanted to write about her life for a very long time. And now, thanks to a skilled ghostwriter, a generous husband and an on-demand publishing platform, Margarete has a beautiful book to give her two daughters Gabi and Margarete Anne, her grandchildren, and her sister Charlotte, who will turn 90 in a few weeks.

Designer Elles Gianocostas found this image to complement the reminiscence that ghostwriter Lucy Sholley selected to begin the family history.

In theory, I could have written about this book from a paper and publishing angle (Pearl proPhoto paper, which we wrote about here, is made by Mohawk for Blurb’s ProLine) without actually reading it. Happily for me, Margarete McNeice was comfortable with my borrowing a copy, which I have savored page by page, from her early childhood memories, through World War II, to the dangerous refugee years and, ultimately, to Wollaston, Mass., and a new life.

Left: Margarete worked at the snack bar on an Allied military base in Austria. Right: Charlotte remembers sitting for this photo. “Oh, yes, I was waiting for my boyfriend. The dress was blue with red and a little pocket here with a little handkerchief.”

The day I finished reading the 90-page book, I enjoyed virtual coffee and homemade stollen via phone (Margarete credits German coffee as one of her charms) and heard how Margarete finally got her book — and a new friend in the process. She met memoirist Lucy Sholley last year at the hairdresser. They got to talking, and the rest is … family history.

Family photos are supplemented with vintage images, including a few woodcuts and picture postcards.

Lucy included voices in addition to Margarete’s — a few wonderful, lengthy recollections from Charlotte and Gabi, and pithier comments from Jack, such as, “I didn’t always have a pass when I took the train to see Margarete. To keep from getting arrested, I would stay in the men’s room with the door locked for the entire trip.” Fittingly, he ultimately proposed to her at the train station.

Margarete and GI Jack McNeice in the early days of their courtship. She says he spoke “perfect German, which was lucky because I spoke so little English.”

Elles Gianocostas enthuses over the reproduction of the old family photos, “which weren’t great to start with, and were also somewhat the worse for wear. The paper [7.5 pt medium-gloss Pearl] is so thick and creamy. The photos sparkle. And for a short book — it’s 90 pages — the thickness of the paper makes it seem more substantial.”

Gray italics differentiate anecdotes told by members of Margarete’s family.

Gabi, Margarete’s older daughter, had started taping her mother’s stories about 20 years ago but never transcribed them. (Sadly, the tapes didn’t age as gracefully as Margarete and had to be discarded.) Lucy also used a recorder, and Gabi enjoyed Lucy’s process, which she describes as “Getting together once a week over coffee. Even though we had just met Lucy, it was like chatting with a friend. Sometimes we sat around the kitchen table, sometimes we sat by the pool. I’ve heard my mother’s stories about my life … my whole life.”

Gabi and Margarete. Gabi comments, “I never felt mine was a difficult life. I knew I was loved. I never looked at my life as hard — it was just life. My youngest, when I talk about it, feels very sad for me.”

Lucy observes, “I think the ghostwriting of memoirs is a nascent industry. I describe myself as a personal historian, and I sense that there are a lot of us in this business — along with a growing appetite for memoirs and oral histories. In this era of social media, people are much less shy about sharing. Lots of boomers feel they’ve already led very rich lives and want a memoir, or they commission a book for their parents. They understand that they’re creating legacies for future generations.”

Jack ordered soft-cover copies for friends at Boston College, of which he is a long-time benefactor. He simply says, “They love it!”

Mutti: My Life and TImes is a wonderful example of what Blurb founder Eileen Gittins calls “social publishing.” I am honored to have had the chance to read Margarete McNeice’s story. Elles Gianocostas adds that she put a bit of her own grandmother into the cover design: “I grew up in The Netherlands myself. I wasn’t alive during the ’40s, but I have photos of my grandmother wearing dresses made of fabric with the pattern I used on the cover. It reminded me of that period.” Lucy concludes, “I’ve always been sad that I have so few memories of my grandparents, so I feel good about helping others preserve their family histories.”

Lucy Sholley is currently working on two memoirs, with a third in the wings. Prior to starting Pentimento Memoirs last year, she had worked as a reporter, then as director of Communications at Boston Beer Company (brewers of Sam Adams), and most recently spent 10 years as director of Station Marketing at public broadcaster WGBH Boston (where she worked with designer Elles Gianocostas). If you have a story you’d like Lucy to help you tell, you can reach her at [email protected] We wrote about Elles Gianocostas’ first Blurb project, the deFINEd Bindings catalog, here.

Book photos © 2012 StudioAlex
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Comments (9)

  1. Posted by Notely on 04.4.12 at 10:31 am

    I loved reading this story and now I’d really love to read the book … Mutti, thank you for sharing this with Alyson, and to everyone in the McNeice family as well. What a wonderful gift.

  2. Posted by Nora Sinclair on 04.4.12 at 10:34 am

    Lucy Sholley is a superb writer, as well as my good friend, and anyone would be lucky to have her tackle their life stories. And Elles is a fabulous designer. What a great pair working together.

    Congratulations to Mutti, and I hope there will be lots and lots of others soon flocking to Lucy and Elles!

  3. Posted by Beth on 04.4.12 at 12:31 pm

    Fabulous looking book with a fascinating story within. Good work, one and all. How thrilling. Was thinking how much I wish either of my grandmothers, long gone, had told their story and how easily one’s history otherwise disappears. Even more so in this age when computers and devices change so fast with little left on paper??

  4. Posted by Margaret Boles Fitzgerald on 04.4.12 at 1:08 pm

    I have known Lucy “forever”, and even in her high school years, she was a magical writer – with an ability to capture thoughts, wrestle good ideas to the ground, sift through the complexities and present simplified elegance in prose. Her lyrical writing style matches her conversational style – witty, mature, intelligent. Her ability to paint a portrait of a life – whether spoken or written – was and is unique and special. As a memoirist, she is aptly suited, and her ability to engage comfortably with all people – from princes to paupers – assures that she will glean the gold and grit from a life that is to be shared. After years in corporate life, Lucy is exactly where she should be – grabbing the lustre of a person’s life and spinning it into a story “for the ages”.

  5. Posted by Anne Zeiser on 04.4.12 at 1:34 pm

    I have no doubt that “Mutti” is a lyrical, heartfelt embodiment of Margarete’s life. The combination of her unique story, Lucy’s gift for words, and Elles’ superb design eye make for a fabulous gift for her family and friends. We all should do such tributes to our loved ones.

  6. Posted by Bruce Kohl on 04.4.12 at 5:19 pm

    How lovely to see such thought and care be put into this endeavor! Lucy Sholley has definitely brought the art of memoir writing to its most personal and profound.

  7. Posted by Erika Shaw (grandaughter) on 04.6.12 at 2:14 pm

    It’s amazing how detailed my grandmothers memories are. Her strength is truly amazing, and much to live up to.

  8. Posted by Cynthia Broner on 04.8.12 at 5:09 pm

    I know from experience what an incomparable gift Margarete has given her family–and also how much Lucy’s talents helped bring her story to life. My mother was part of a memoirs group that prompted her recall of long-buried memories. Our family has savored her writings, especially now that she’s gone, and what a rare thing to be able to pass them along to the next generation.

    Not everyone is so fortunate, so how lucky that a chance encounter led to this wonderful pairing, with Lucy skillfully weaving Margarete’s dramatic story into a beautifully rounded portrait. Elles’ lovely design is the cherry on top. Bravo!

  9. Posted by Peter Sholley on 10.4.12 at 5:53 pm

    I am late on this but am busting my buttons with pride in you, Sweetheart!


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