James Pelrine never knew his grandparents and had a father who wasn’t around much.
When he became a parent, he vowed to be there for his children so they would have memories of him. His life was full of picnics, science projects and school marching band performances.
Now 81, he is part of group of older adults in a Richard Stockton College writing group who have compiled those life stories as memoirs for themselves and their descendants and as lessons for Stockton students.
“In the old days, people grew up in family groups,” Pelrine said. “You’d sit with a grandfather and hear the stories. Now families are split up all over the world. They don’t get the benefit of that time with grandparents. They lose that closeness.”
The Time to Tell program was adapted by Gina Maguire and Anita Beckwith, of the Stockton Center on Successful Aging, from a guided autobiography course taught by professor Lisa Cox. Almost 20 people have participated at some point, meeting monthly since January 2012 to discuss their writings on 14 themes.
On Wednesday six members of the group met for the final session. Members will also read at the center’s festival May 23.
The writing topics have been diverse — family, education, home life, entertainment, spirituality, politics, careers, celebrations and food. Participants said the themes helped generate ideas and trigger memories.
“The class gives them a structure and helps them focus,” Maguire said.
Meryl Baer, 62, of Ventnor, talked about the future as a time to look forward, and also to face mortality. She wrote about how others in her family have faced old age, some with vigor and enthusiasm for travel and new experiences, some facing health issues, and others continuing to work out of financial necessity.
That led to a group discussion of how and where people they know have chosen to spend their retirement. Some have left the country, others moved to be close to the grandchildren.
“Retirement is the best stage of life,” said Roberta Plaskett, 76, of Hammonton and Port Republic. “We don’t look it, but we’re still 20 inside.”
“Just smarter,” added Lorraine Gicas, 68, of Smithville.
“You need to read that to my class,” Maguire said. “They are all afraid of getting older.”
The writers have spoken to social work and gerontology classes at the college. Maguire said professors plan to use the stories in class to demonstrate the different ways people age. She said most students have little exposure to older adults outside their own families, and the writers give them different perspectives.
Members said the group has been a support system as they explored long-buried feelings and even family secrets.
“There is an intense emotional aspect of reliving your life on paper,” Plaskett said. “But for me, writing became a reason to get up in the morning and stay up late at night. My goal now is to make the most of my life and live long enough to finish the book.”
Make that books — Plaskett’s stories have blossomed into four books. One of them, “Awakened Fire: First Lessons in the Dance of Life” has been published as an e-book through Kindle on Amazon under the name R.T. Plaskett.
Gicas said she has some very personal things she wanted to share with her sons, and it was easier to write them down than tell them face to face. She admits to being very intimidated by the group at first and almost didn’t come back after the first meeting.
“Then I figured out how I’d start writing, and that this was a safe place,” she said.
Audrey Piazza, of Tuckerton, has taken several writing classes and has stories and scrapbooks filled with notes, photos and mementoes.
“I started with scrapbooks,” she said. “Then I decided to write a book for my grandchildren, and I wanted to learn to express myself in a creative way.”
Maguire said an added benefit of the group has been all the wonderful and interesting stories she has heard.
Group members said they have learned a lot about themselves in their writing as well.
Pelrine read his essay about how his life has not been fancy, but has been full, with friends, children who have grown into fine adults, and the love of a wonderful wife, Ethel.
“I know who I am and what I am capable of,” Pelrine said. “I am comfortable in my life.”
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