'We're her people': Writing group surprises beloved member for 91st birthday

Brian Arola, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
·2 min read

Mar. 9—MANKATO — Mary Helen Kennedy's eyes lit up when she saw who was waiting for her outside the front doors Monday at Ecumen Pathstone Living.

A beloved member of VINE's memoir writing group, Kennedy has been recovering in the Mankato facility since a recent fall. It meant she hasn't been able to meet up with them over Zoom like usual.

So her writing group friends planned a brief reunion for her 91st birthday Monday, surprising her with signs and flowers outside the building before she headed off to an appointment.

Group members sang "Happy Birthday" to her, tooted a horn and shook maracas in celebration. The 91-year-old thanked the group of about 15, described as "her people," for being there for her.

Kennedy's daughter, Mary Wenner, said her mom had no idea the group would be there.

"She just loves them and they love her," she said. "It means that she's loved and cared for and not forgotten."

The group has grown close through writing, a chance to learn about each other's lives while honing their storytelling skills. They've met outside in parks or virtually over Zoom on a weekly basis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Celebrating birthdays is common within the tight-knit group, but harder during the pandemic when indoor gatherings aren't as safe. The group decided to find a way to celebrate Kennedy after not seeing her since her fall, said Linda Good, who facilitates the VINE group.

"We just wanted to make her birthday special because it's been rough the last few weeks," she said.

In all, the group has memoirs from 22 people. They've formed teams to work on editing, proofing, artwork and layout so they can send it all to a publisher for printing this year, Good said.

Kennedy's sense of humor shines through in her stories, said fellow group member Jan Prehn.

"We all have a special place in our heart for Mary Helen," she said. "She's just a delight."

When the group asked Kennedy for life advice Monday, she responded by saying "keep moving." Whether picking up memoir writing or another activity, keeping active and involved in social groups is known to be a healthy practice as people grow older.

At 72, Barbara Keating was often the oldest person in the room during department meetings before she retired from Minnesota State University two years ago.

Now she's one of the younger members of the writing group and sees Kennedy and the others as inspirational.

"I really appreciate the elder role models," she said. "Now I know what I want to be like when I'm 91 or 75 or 83."

She and the rest of the group are hoping Kennedy can return to writing soon. And by next year, one member noted, they could celebrate the birthday of Kennedy the author.

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