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Though it took two full years, Margo Valentine oversaw the story of her life move from her handwritten manuscript to finished product. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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If Margo Valentine had not fallen down the stairs while going to a tailor’s shop in 2016, she would not have written a book. But Margo, then 85, did fall down. And she did write a book.
The fall left Margo, a longtime Essex resident, with a broken shoulder and a lot of time to reflect on her life while she recuperated at home.
Her good friend Anne Bishop, who also lives in Essex, suggested that Margo might want to turn her musings into a memoir. It was a challenge at first.
“I don’t like spilling the beans,” Margo says
When she finally began, it took Margo more than two years to write it all down—by hand. She does not have a computer, nor for that matter a cell phone.
“I don’t do technology,” she explains.
Still, with transcribing and editing help from Bishop and associate editor Jessica Harris, and design assistance from John Visgilio of Overabove, a marketing and graphics firm in Essex, Margo’s memories are now a book, Up Till Now.
She recently had that standard of the book industry, a publishing party, and like all authors, she autographed her slim volume, but at this publishing party there was a key difference: Attendees couldn’t buy the book. Instead, Margo, who paid herself to have 150 copies printed, gave the book away to friends.
“I was so overwhelmed by the love in that room. It was so welcoming,” she says.
When members of her extended family heard she was writing memoirs, she says there was some worry she would exaggerate, repeating a pattern she had had as a child.
“I had to exaggerate. I was the youngest and if I didn’t exaggerate, people wouldn’t pay any attention to me at all,” she says.
The compliments over the book, she admits, are sometimes difficult to deal with.
“I can’t take it all in,” she says. “As a kid, I never had any compliments at all.”
Now at 88, Margo walks daily on the grounds of Department of Energy & Environmental Protection facility on the Connecticut River in Old Lyme. She does three circles of the property.
“Two and a half miles,” she says, and she picks up litter as she goes.
Her routine often includes a visit to the Essex Library; she looks at the New York Times but doesn’t spend too long on it.
“I can’t take it all in anymore,” she explains.
Other regular stops include feeding the ducks at the bottom of Essex Main Street by the Connecticut River Museum, and often a walk in the woods on her own property, picking up kindling and suitable logs for the fire.
“I love a little bit of the woods,” she says.
She food shops daily at a local market, reminiscent of the way she went to market every day in France when she lived there with her husband Garry, from whom she was divorced after 32 years of marriage and four children.
After the divorce, Margo had a 28-year relationship with the late Robert Herbst, onetime president of the Essex Savings Bank, whom she describes as the love of her life.
“We decided early on not to get married; we didn’t want to take that step and get into money and estates and everything,” she says.
She watches a half hour of television news in the morning, and likes CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and the commentary of Mark Shields and David Brooks on the PBS NewsHour, but her real television preference is Law and Order.
“I am really hooked on that show,” she says.
Both in Old Saybrook, where she lived for 20 years before moving to Essex more than 30 years ago, Margo has been a dedicated and effective community volunteer. In Old Saybrook, she was instrumental in starting Fellowship in Service Here (FISH), an organization that provided transportation for people who could not otherwise get to important appointments at hospitals, doctors, and clinics.
After working with FISH for some 20 years, the service in Old Saybrook stopped with the introduction of federal and state sponsored bus service. (The FISH service continues for Essex, Chester, and Deep River.) Margo was also for five years president of Gateway Counseling, which provided psychological services. Gateway has since merged to become part of Gilead Community Services.
Margo, whose given first name is Margaret, says she decided to call herself Margo as a child because of one of her favorite radio programs of that era, The Shadow.
“His sidekick was Margo Lane,” she says.
She lived in New York City as a child but her favorite place was her family’s farm in Woodbury, Connecticut, the site of her most memorable childhood experience: the New England Hurricane of 1938.
Margo’s parents had left her alone on the farm for the day while they took her two brothers to school at St. Paul’s in New Hampshire and when the hurricane struck they couldn’t get back. The seven-year-old Margo was alone.
“The animals kept me going. I had to milk the cow, feed all of them—the cats, the dogs, the cows, the chickens, the steer. I wasn’t lonely,” she recalls.
Still, she says that powerful gusts of wind can terrify her.
Margo says she is sometimes amazed by her own longevity. Both her parents died in their 60s. But she has very definite opinions about aging.
“I don’t want to take up space if I am no longer productive,” she says.
She has already given considerable thought to the end of life. She wants her body to go to the University of Connecticut for use by medical students.
“I am the ultimate recycler,” she explains.