I love stories, any stories, all stories, old stories, short stories, long, winding, rambling stories. I love stories that are funny, those that are sad, those that are real and true. I know this love exists because I write and because I am young and there’s only so much I can infer about a life I haven’t begun to live. So, I collect stories the same way some people collect pictures, coins, or stamps. Most of the best stories in my collection have come out of unusual circumstances.
When I was a senior in high school, our English class was given the assignment to interview an elderly person in our community, a grandparent perhaps or a great-aunt or great-uncle, asking them about their Christmas memories. My problem was that my grandparents lived five hours away and calling them for the interview did not seem like a promising venture. So, I gathered my notebook, pen, tape recorder, and courage and went to a retirement community nearby. I had grand images in my head of sitting in a wise elderly lady’s room, listening as she told me everything she had learned about life, love, and happiness. I should’ve known better. When I asked to talk with one of their residents, the women at the front desk were hesitant, most likely intending to turn down my request and send me politely on my way. While I was nodding my head, preparing to leave, a little old man entered the lobby. One of the women asked him if he would be willing to help me. He said, “Yes, ma’am.”
We sat down in a deserted dining room across from each other. I set up my tape recorder, got out my sheet of questions, cleared my throat awkwardly and asked him the first question on the worksheet. He gave me long, detailed, articulate answers in his soft, scratchy voice. He told me of the year that his father had to mortgage a cow to pay for their Christmas and of the time their neighbors left Christmas gifts on the front porch for him and his siblings. He told me about the night his brother stayed up and waited for Santa Claus, only to fall asleep and wake to his father’s voice crying out, “Come back again next year, Santa Claus!” In these stories I learned about sacrifice, about kindness, about humor, and about love.
I don’t know if telling me those stories made a difference to him or if I was just another young person asking a bunch of silly questions. I do know that the experience taught me something important – the value of listening. I believe in the importance of listening, of being open to hearing other’s stories whether they are happy or sad, boring or lively, long or short. I believe in listening because it means you care, that you can respect another person, and see the value in their experiences. Besides, you never know what you can learn from other people’s stories.
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