I believe that we should take time to listen to people’s stories—even if we’ve heard them before, or we’re not that interested in the subject, or we think we have better things to do with our time. We should especially take the time to listen to older people’s stories, about their lives and their families, which are sometimes our families, too.
Six years ago I was corralled into teaching a “writing your life story” class. My first group was six retirees looking to preserve and pass on a part of their lives to their children and grandchildren. I wasn’t sure how it would work out, since none of them wrote professionally and most hadn’t written much in many, many years. I thought it’d be eight weeks and done.
To lead the group, I focused on encouragement. I began each class talking about the act of writing, and then I read from someone’s published autobiography. I stayed away from much structure, trying to get them to think in terms of stories instead of genealogy. For the majority of the class time, my students read their own work.
At first they were shy. They stuck to facts, they wrote about holiday celebrations and where their parents came from and how many children they had. But over time, the stories evolved. Details were added and the stories started to grow and come alive. Louise celebrated her fifty-fifth birthday by getting a rose tattoo. Daisy stood up to people who resisted her integrating their neighborhood. Olive gave birth to her third child on the kitchen floor. These are only a small part of the stories we’ve shared. We’ve laughed together and we’ve cried together. Six years later, the class still meets.
My students’ families are lucky—they are the beneficiaries of these lives in so many ways, and have it in writing. Fuzz, a member of the first group, died after the first session was over. His children bound his six stories into a book in tribute to him. Daisy’s life story was published by a historical society. Both Louise and Gussie have self-published their collections and Olive and Karen are planning to do the same soon.
What made me think about all this was a recent trip I took to Penn’s Cave in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania. My mother had always told me that my great-grandmother went there on her honeymoon. But that was all she knew. I took the cave’s boat tour, wondering how seventeen-year-old Martha Miller Close felt when she descended into that cold, dark cave with her new husband and sat in that boat. Was she scared? What did she think when she saw those stalactites and stalagmites—the very same ones I was looking at 112 years later? I have no idea—all I have is the knowledge that she was there.
Not everyone writes. But everyone can listen and remember. Listen to other people’s stories. Remember them and repeat them, too, but first, listen, especially to your family stories.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.