Good writers and fascinating people often hide in plain sight. But that wasn’t what I was thinking when I walked into a cavernous, uninspiring room in a hospital on a Thursday in November of 2009. ReServe placed me there to teach memoir writing at the New York Presbyterian’s Health Outreach Program. The space was gloomy enough to scare me, the instructor. And I was nervous. What I was about to encounter?
A memoir writing class sponsored by the Health Outreach arm of New York Presbyterian Hospital for those 60+ didn’t sound inspiring. I wondered whether the 15 people who had signed up for the class would be so doddering that writing about their experiences would challenge their memories. Would they be the “nearly walking, almost coherent, computer-phobic” elderly?
I didn’t for a moment consider myself elderly. Of course, I didn’t hop out of bed like I used to when a steady stream of middle age exuberance propelled me, I reasoned. But I was 70. I expected that they would be the elderly, and I would just be me.
One by one they approached the room. Some were using canes, rather jauntily, I reflected. Most weren’t. Many hesitated before they entered. I sensed they were fearful, perhaps of revealing more of their lives, their feelings or themselves than they wanted to.
During our introductions I found out they hailed from every part of the U.S. and beyond: from the rural farmlands of the Midwest to crowded apartments in the Bronx, from comfortable suburban homes or row houses in Baltimore to elegant digs in Argentina.
Their backgrounds were just as diverse; law enforcement, interpreter, administration, speech therapist, choir leader, teacher, principal, psychologist, actor, and business executive.
So why were they were taking the class? A couple of attendees were hoping to find ways of dealing with the loss of a spouse. Some wanted to leave the stories of their lives for their families, expressing regrets that their own parents or grandparents had not done that for them. Others were delving into their genealogy and thought this might be a perfect way to weave personal stories into the branches of the family tree. Still others thought writing would allow them to put their lives into perspective and understand themselves and their experiences better. And a number of them saw this as a way to work through some deeply painful and unresolved issues that had been squeezing into their consciousness.
In a safe and supportive environment, the writing began. The stories were so different and yet so universal. The insecurities of youth, the beauty of wonder, unacknowledged courage in the face of adversity, trepidation of “firsts,” simple joys from nature and knowledge, satisfaction from stretching and growing, anger over betrayal, fear of disappointment, rage of loss, and perseverance because “what else can one do.”
Now, three years after the first session, this class has morphed from a group of diverse strangers into a group of friends who admire and care deeply for one another.
But I believe I am the major benefactor of their insights and wisdom. Their exciting, colorful, funny, anguished, and uplifting life stories have made me a richer person.
ReServist, Pat Estess was writer and editorial consultant on the subjects of money management, relationships and retirement, and was a guest speaker on the Today Show, Weekend Today, CNN, CNBC and ABC News. In the 1980′s, she was the editor of Sylvia Porter’s Personal Finance Magazine (now Kiplinger’s Finance Magazine) and was the contributing editor and a consultant for Reader’s Digest’s New Choices Magazine. In 2007, she spent one year as a facilitator for StoryCorps, interviewing individuals and audio editing interviews for NPR’s oral histories project. She joined ReServe in 2007 and lives in Brooklyn. To commemorate Older Americans Month, ReServe invited ReServists to write original essays about their current or past assignment. This is one of twelve essays. – ED