Memorializing the dead with a book for the living

Aigburthvale resident Peg McAllen was 84 when she died of cancer this past summer.

Her life was summed up in 200 words in an obituary in the Baltimore Sun.

And she was lucky to get that. Though the obituary page is chock full of death notices each day, usually only two or three of the locally deceased are accorded that honor.

Two hundred words is a pretty thin stretch, considering the facts of a life that have to be included: the dates of birth and death, parents, places of residency, schools, occupations, honors and awards, weddings, children, survivors and funeral arrangements.

The obituary barely touched on the fact that Peg McAllen had recently celebrated 35 years of sobriety, often wrote letters to the editor, was a volunteer grief counselor for Gilchrist Hospice, a ministerial candidate for the Church of Religious Science.

Nor did it mention how she tackled death from lung cancer head on.

There was also no mention that she was a member of the Towson-based Wednesday Writers, a group that has been meeting and sharing passages from their own lives since 1999.

There was no mention how McAllen's wry wit kept the other Wednesday writers laughing at her stories, including her "underpants tale" — how she had purchased 15 pairs of new underpants because she didn't want her children rifling through her underwear drawer after she died and finding tattered items.

Or how she was "a soldier for the causes she believed in," as writers' group member Marcia Gleckler wrote, "whose best weapon was her sense of humor."

Her death shocked the Wednesday Writers and Betty Walter, who founded the group. Walter suggested each member write something about McAllen.

When Walter collected the pieces the next week she was too upset to say much. Instead of having them read aloud, she handed them to fellow member Joan Eustace Pugh and said simply, "Do something with this."

Pugh knew what to do.

Her experience with Uncle Vincent became her guide.

Gone, never forgotten

Pugh was 20 months old when her Uncle Vincent was killed, at age 21, during World War II in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Seaman First Class Vincent Francis Kohlerman was one of 318 men lost when the carrier USS Bismarck Sea went down after two kamikaze attacks on Feb. 21, 1945.

He had enlisted in the Navy in December 1942.

"His death made huge changes in my family," said Pugh, a retired Baltimore County educator and principal who grew up in Rodgers Forge and Wiltondale but now lives in Harford County.

A former "Miss Towson" in 1962, Pugh is a charter member of the Wednesday Writers.

Pugh was too young to remember Vincent, who was her godfather, but she knew him well because of the tales her mother used to tell her.

Vincent was "the brawn" of the children Harry and Rosina Pipetone Kohlerman produced, Pugh said. "His brother, Nicholas, was 'the brain' and my mother, Virginia, was 'the girl.' Her father's little girl."

Pugh's mother told her she had chosen her brother to be her godfather because he was so personable. He was just "outgoing, fun and very loving," she said.

After Vincent died, their mother, who used to sing at weddings and in choirs, never sang again, Pugh said. She kept Vincent's bedroom exactly as it was for eight years, and when she and her grandfather built a new house they included a bedroom for Vincent.

Her mother, who was 25 when the telegram came declaring her brother was dead, had a nervous breakdown. "It devastated them," Pugh said.

As the years passed, five members of the family were named after her uncle. They were given Vincent as their first or middle name.

At the 60th anniversary of his death, in 2005, Pugh was retired and a widow and had time on her hands.

She had developed an affection for Vincent and, with it, a sense of obligation.

True, his name was included in World War II memorials at Calvert Hall College High School and McDonough School, where he was a track and lacrosse star, and inscribed in stone at Dulaney Valley Gardens, where his medals are buried with his parents.

But there would be nobody to remember who Uncle Vincent was.

"He had made this huge sacrifice and given his life for his country," Pugh said, "and one day he would be just a name. I didn't want him to be forgotten."

Pugh was familiar with Hewlett-Packard's Snapfish website — she stored photos on it and created calendars. So she used it to create a photo book about Vincent.

"The printed page is everlasting, "she said.

For six months she researched his service records, talked to people and traveled to relevant locations and took photographs.

When she received the finished product and leafed through the 20-page book, she was ecstatic.

"It turned out exactly as I had hoped it would turn out. "

She presented a copy to each of the five boys in the family who have Vincent's name.

"It felt good," she said. "I had done my part in making sure his life was not lost."

'This goes on forever'

So when it came to honoring Peg McAllen, Pugh, who had known her as a child in Wiltondale, decided to take the writings, short poems and memoirs and made them into another 20-page memorial book.

It took her days of researching, gathering photographs, re-typing and layout with help from Linda Neiderman, an artist in the group.

The book that she created — this time via Shutterbug — "was a lot of work, but it was a work of love."

The group presented it to one of Peg McAllen's three children, Towson resident Bill McAllen.

The Wednesday Writers was "a second family" for his mother, he said.

"She would be as overwhelmed, and I am and flattered they went to this effort. This book will be passed on to different generations.

"It's big step beyond sending flowers. It's interesting when someone writes about someone you love; each person sees that person differently. It's a very sweet and thoughtful gift they have given us."

Walter said the memorial book was a wonderful idea — and now she encourages others to consider such tributes to their loved ones.

"Every person is more than an obituary, good, bad or indifferent. A memorial book is a portrait. Each essay or little story, whether it's funny or sad, adds a different color to it.

"It doesn't have to be compiled by group of writers. It could be a group of friends or witches or Methodist ladies.

"It's the ultimate tribute."

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