Great storyteller puts family memories into print

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Messenger photo by Dedra Cordle
Norma McNeal Freeman, a longtime resident of London, proudly showcases her first book, “Family Memories.” The 93-year-old said she hopes the book that details her life, the lives of her ancestors, and those of living and deceased relatives can “bring forth an awareness” of the experiences of people of color.

(Posted Jan. 5, 2022)

By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer

Norma McNeal Freeman loves family gatherings. The bigger the better, in her opinion, and if they happen to take place via Zoom meetings now, that is more than fine with the 93-year-old from London.

“My family is everything to me,” she said. “They are my pride and my joy, and I want nothing more than to hear about their interests, to hear about what is going on in their lives.”

The problem that Norma often runs into during these gatherings, however, is that her relatives do not want to talk about themselves. Instead, they want to hear from her.

“She is the storyteller in our family,” said her daughter, Mary Freeman Murphy. “She always has a story to tell.”

Norma’s life experiences and her fondness for reading have made her a fountain of information, but so too has her brain which has been compared to a sponge when it comes to knowledge of the family’s history.

“My memory goes back to 3 years old,” she explained. “I have a lot of things stored up there.”

Those “things” often make her a hit at gatherings, whether they be in-person or via computer. Her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren often ask her to recount the days of their ancestors–stories she gladly tells, no matter how many times she has already told them.

If she wants to talk about her maternal grandparents, Carse and Dora Cunningham, Norma speaks of how humble they were working their farm in Madison County, how accepting they were of child-posed questions during adult discussion time, and how they required everyone to pitch in–even their favored grandchildren, sometimes but not all of the time.

If she wants to talk about her paternal grandparents, Addison and Ollie Mae McNeal, she speaks of how they were “city people” and how Ollie Mae’s mother was exiled from her wealthy family for daring to fall in love with a Black man.

If she is asked about her life, Norma talks about how she was verbally chased out of the library in the second grade for wanting to be a “little Black girl who reads” and how she spent three years after high school moving around the country for work. She also talks about how, if she hadn’t reconnected with the man who would become her husband and given him another chance, her family wouldn’t have come to be as they are now.

“I did not like my husband [the late Allen J. Freeman] much when we were growing up,” Norma said with a laugh. “He was stingy as hell. Other boys would buy you ice cream or Coke, but he wouldn’t.”

Over the years, any time Norma opened her mouth to tell a story, the family stopped and listened to the memories–so much so that their common refrain was, “You gotta put this to paper.”

The thought of writing a book, even a book about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of her family, never crossed her mind, she said.

“I never gave it a thought,” she stated.

Eventually, the idea started to percolate more and more, and with the encouragement of her daughters, Mary and Jean [Freeman Mitchell], and friend, Eileen Burns-Kearney, she decided to put memory to paper in 2018.

At the age of 90, Norma spent three months writing her book of memories–memories of her life, the life of her ancestors, and the lives of deceased and living relatives. She said she felt possessed but only in the best way possible.

“My fingers were just flying across the keyboard,” she said.

Because she has unusual sleeping hours, it wouldn’t be uncommon to find Norma at the computer, typing away at three in the morning.

“She was on a mission,” Mary said.

For three months, Norma worked on the book, her homage to her family, her everything, and when it came time to find a publisher, she had to put that dream aside.

“I lost my good friend, Eileen, and I had to make time to grieve,” she said.

Knowing her friend would not want her to put off the journey, Norma re-started the drafting process earlier this year and “Family Memories” finally came to fruition.

It wasn’t a surprise to most in her family that she made this book. After all, it came at their prompting. But some did not know it was printed and published until they opened copies of the book as gifts at a family gathering on Christmas day.

Norma said she did not just write this book for her family. She wrote it to invite people into her family and share in their lives, in their lived experiences.

“I want it to be informative, educational,” she said. “I would like for it to bring forth an awareness of what the life experiences were like of somebody of color, of someone they know.”

Norma said she is immensely proud of this book, her first, and maybe not last.

“There are still so many stories to tell,” she quipped. “I might get around to writing them, but I’m feeling a little lazy right now.”

Instead, people will just have to settle for her verbal stories. She loves to tell them almost as much as people love to hear them, after all.

“Family Memories” can be purchased at $25 a copy from Wilson Printing & Graphics Inc., 158 S. Main St., London. To place mail orders, make checks out to Wilson Printing & Graphics Inc. and send to the aforementioned address; the cost of mail ordered books is $35 each (includes shipping and handling). For additional inquiries about the book, call (740) 852-5934.

Norma plans to donate copies of the book to London Public Library and St. Patrick Catholic Church where she is a parishioner. Norma is a 1947 graduate of London High School.

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