by Dennis Dalman
What started as a therapeutic mental exercise for Millie Hoelscher Moran of Sartell turned into a full-fledged 245-page book of personal memoirs.
She will sign copies of her new book from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 14 at Liquid Assets coffee shop in Sartell.
That book, entitled “Socially Challenged,” was just published by North Star Press of St. Cloud.
A couple of years ago, Millie was concerned about her husband, Don, thinking he must be getting some kind of serious memory loss. She and Don sought help, and to their astonishment they learned they are both suffering from an early form of dementia that may or may not be related to Alzheimer’s disease.
A doctor told Millie that writing down memories from the past is not only a good idea in the non-literary age of texting and other forms of fleeting and frivolous communications but that remembering and writing happenings from one’s life can help minimize the effects of dementia.
Since Moran had always felt she had a “writer” inside her, she fully enjoyed her new activity, remembering the past, mulling it over, writing it down. After taking a writing course at St. Cloud State University, she put pen to paper. Her initial “exercises,” which started as a trickle or two, eventually flowed into a stream and then into a veritable flood of memories.
Moran’s book is a chronological memoir of her unique life, from growing up on a farm as one of 18 children to her work as a nursing assistant, her marriage, her life in southern California and the family’s return to Minnesota. In telling her story, Moran uses a straightforward, no-nonsense, conversational writing style with no rhetorical flourishes or fancy figures of speech. Reading the book is akin to listening to an elderly relative tell a leisurely story while sitting in front of a fireplace.
To younger readers especially, Moran’s earliest memories might seem to have originated on a distant planet, so different was life back then in the 1940s and 1950s. Hoelscher was born in 1938 in the Bertha Hospital, then raised on a farm near Browerville that had been homesteaded by her German immigrant grandparents. Browerville is in Todd County, smack dab in the heart of Minnesota.
In the 1930s, there was a constant tug-of-war in rural Minnesota as to whether children should be allowed to speak their native German or adapt to English only. That debate raged in homes and in schools. Most children in one-room schools, like Hoelscher, had to painfully and awkwardly adapt to trying to get by in using a smattering of both languages. It was a constant struggle for her and many others. Hoelscher loved learning; she loved school; but she also knew her chances for an extended education were slim to none.
As Hoelscher developed into a teenager, she began to daydream a lot about the exciting possibilities for her own independence, a future of her own, but she was also haunted by the lack of options for girls and women in those days.
“As a teenager, feeling isolated in adult responsibilities, fantasizing swept me away to visisons of a life beyond the farm,” Moran wrote. “Few girls went to college. If they did, it was to acquire nursing, teaching or secretarial skills. Some would work as store clerks or waitresses. A few pursued training to become airline stewardesses. I was going through a period of discerning whether I felt drawn to a life of marriage or as a nun. Mostly, I longed for an education.”
Becoming a nun was always a strong option for one or more girls in large Catholic families in those days. High school, as in Hoelscher’s case, was a closed option because she had to work on the farm and help take care of a large and growing family.
Although Hoelscher didn’t become a nun and did not attend high school, she knew and worked with many nuns and acquired an education of sorts when she joined St. John’s Hospital in Browerville as a nursing assistant. She was paid only 40 cents an hour, even though the minimum wage at that time was closer to a dollar. That is because nursing assistants at that time could be classified as “domestic workers,” thus not subject to the minimum-wage laws.
An ample portion of “Socially Challenged” consists of detailed memories of Moran’s three years of work at the hospital, dealing with the daily struggles of birth and death, sickness and healing. Although she was technically an “aide,” Moran dealt hands-on as a helper with just about every medical procedure in the hospital, including some that verged on the emotionally traumatic.
Tall, tanned gentleman
Though she didn’t know it at the time, an encounter with a man at Horseshoe Lake Pavilion would completely change the course of Hoelscher’s life. It was a “tall, dark, tanned gentleman” just home from Los Angeles. Born and raised in Little Falls, the man’s sister was about to be married, and he had come back to Minnesota to be a groomsman in the wedding. After dancing with Hoelscher, the man, Don Moran, asked if he could take her home that night.
But Hoelscher’s father’s advice immediately kicked in.
“If a guy meets you at an event and asks to take you home, he likely has one thing in mind. If he is genuinely interested, he will ask you for a date,” her father had often advised.
Hoelscher declined the offer, but gave the man her phone number.
After several dates, Hoelscher and Moran grew closer. Eventually, they became engaged, and the Morans eventually moved back to Los Angeles after their marriage. Moran was in the U.S. Army Guard and also was a professional upholsterer. Life was not easy in those days, and the couple had to pinch pennies constantly, especially after their babies began to be born – five altogether in the coming years, four of them born in southern California.
As a devout Catholic, Moran became involved in her Los Angeles neighborhoods as a speaker for the Right-to-Life movement and constantly imparted knowledge to others about natural birth-control methods. One of Moran’s dreams came true when she earned her general-education diploma, which had been a deep-seated goal ever since she was forced to drop out of school to help with the farm work.
After 13 years in Los Angeles, the Morans decided to move back to their first home – Minnesota.
At first they lived in St. Cloud, where Don worked for Sis Upholstery, later teaching upholstery at the St. Cloud Correctional Facility. Still later, they moved to Sartell.
Millie continued her work as a part-time employee for the St. Cloud Catholic Diocese. Both she and Don would give presentations to the monthly Christian Marriage and Sexuality meetings in St. Cloud, which included information about fertility awareness far advanced from the “old-time” rhythm methods used for spacing children. Millie also worked with many young people in the right-to-life movement and imparting messages about abstinence. She and Don were also active in Sartell school programs and helped start many of them, including many educational field-trip options.
Raising teenagers was a sometimes stressful challenge, especially during and after the 1960s when so many young people were questioning and even thumbing their noses at the morals and traditions of their parents.
Although the Moran children had some close calls and their parents had some worries, they all emerged from youthful traumas more or less unscathed. At times, there were communication problems between Don and Millie as expectations and assumptions between the two became a bit off-kilter.
But, as Millie writes, “At times I sought counseling just for guidance on how to stay sane and grounded in the midst of chaos. It was reassuring to learn what we were experiencing was pretty normal . . . Sometimes I would move forward with a gut feeling as the result of my mother’s words of wisdom on my wedding day: ‘Be sure to meet your own emotional and physical needs better than I did.’”
The Morans continue to hone and improve their communication skills as they both deal with the onset of dementia. They take drugs and belong to a Memory Loss Support Group.
Alzheimer’s disease, Millie predicts, will be a huge national priority in the coming years as baby boomers become older and older.
“The Alzheimer’s numbers are likely to soar and families and government agencies are going to need a better-informed society to assist in the care of related mounting health-care issues. I am grateful, too, for my diagnosis two years ago. I am the one who seeks information and support. We have a clearer picture of what may or may not happen. We’ve learned the dementia language. We are aware of agencies and health-care people that will walk the walk with us and our family if we allow them to. Those tools have led to the two of us learning to step back when conversations between us get garbled and use some newly learned communication skills.”
Moran concludes her book on a bright note:
“God help us to not let dementia or Alzheimer’s define us but aid us in growing more humanly and godly as we embrace the ambiguity.”
Anyone who wants a copy of “Socially Challenged” should call Moran at 320-251-2540.