I believe that each and every person has his own unique story to tell.
Over the holidays, my family visited my step-great-uncle, Nat. We crammed into his tiny apartment, filled with stacks of old newspapers and magazines and piles of junkmail and listened. Just listened. And he told us about growing up in Vermont with seven siblings and growing into a World War in which he fought, riding into shore on boats to storm sandy beaches. He went on and on and on, and although it was a lot to take in all at once, I realized how much we all experience in our lifetimes, and how much history we can learn from the people around us.
I dug up a documentary I shot with my friends, Justin and Li, in high school; our task had been to learn about history ‘first-hand’ from the older people in our lives.
We interviewed my grandmother, Mary, first, who was born in Wimbledon, England, in March of 1928. She was a little girl when the Nazis began dropping bombs on England, and most people didn’t have basements, she told us; she and her mother would have to crawl into the cupboard under the stairs, gas masks at the ready, and sometimes stay there all night. Once, she heard an explosion that was so loud, she was convinced it had been the house right next door, but it turned out the bomb had dropped on a town a few miles away. Her brother enlisted as soon as the war started, and he was captured twice, and managed to escape both times by forging papers by hand with whatever he could get into his cell.
We also met with a friend of Justin’s grandmother who had been born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. As a young black girl, she went to Martin Luther King’s church during the time of the civil rights movement. She told us of how, one Sunday, Dr. King had to barricade her congregation in the church because the Ku Klux Klan had surrounded it; the police in the area encircled the perimeter, but wouldn’t help because most of them were KKK too. She awoke in the middle of the night to the loud rumbling of tanks as the National Guard rolled in to ensure the safety of her neighbors and friends. She told us of how everything was separated into whites only and blacks only, and how she had never touched a white person until she was in her twenties, and had never really been sure until then that they truly had the same skin.
Revisiting these stories, I was struck by how personal this history was compared to what we learned in class- these events really happened, and to real people, too! They may be stories, but they’re also personal histories; I see now how important it is to hear these accounts before a person is gone, because once the person is gone, their stories die with them.
I regret not trying to learn more from my elders who have passed- when I was younger, I was too shy to speak with them, fearing that we had too little in common to talk about. I only picked up the few stories they had told me when they had managed to get my attention, or the tales they’d tell the family at dinnertime on visits or holidays. I wish now I had been more brave, and sat down with them and asked them to tell me their stories, for now I realize just how many died with them.
Since then, I have tried to be more open to hearing the stories of others. While I was waiting to get a haircut last week, an older man sat down next to me. He started talking, and I was tempted to bury my face deeper in the magazine I was reading and ignore him, but instead, I put the magazine down and I turned to him and listened. I learned that he had been escorting his wife to get her hair done every week for the past fifteen years, a routine that had started after the man had won big at the casinos in Atlantic City. He put that money away and told his wife that she could use the money to get her hair done every week for as long as she lived. He told me about how he used to count cards, and explained how to attach a quarter to a fishing line up your sleeve to cheat the slot machines.
Now if I had chosen to ignore this man and keep browsing the junk magazine I had randomly picked from the rack, I would have missed out on a very interesting person. Just as I missed out, when I was younger, on learning more about my grandparents and my family history because I had ignored them, thinking their stories too boring, or not relevant. I know now that every person carries their own stories, and that these tales make us who we are and can shape the generations to come. I believe that each and every person has his own unique story to tell.
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