The ear that listens

Years ago, I started a blog on a whim.  I made one post and never returned to it.  I just found it, and thought it made sense to include it here.  If the woman described in this story is still alive, she would be 91, and her husband 93.  I remember this conversation clearly, and I recall how impressed I was listening to her.  At the time, I was married with no children, working at a literacy organization and loving it.  My daily walks with my dog (who’s unfortunately no longer with us) were a treasure, and on this particular day, when I veered from our usual path, I came upon another treasure: someone with a story to tell.


August 17, 2009

On my evening stroll with the dog, I decided to turn down a road I’d never taken before.  Halfway down the block, an unfamiliar voice called out to me, “What kind of dog is that?”

It was an older voice, and when I looked up and saw the woman standing alone on her front stoop, I realized the voice came from an even older person.  She wore a light blue denim top, sleeveless, and white shorts.  Her bobbed white hair was slightly disheveled, but she still pulled the left side back in a barrette.  A rather large belly hung from her middle, apparently disrupting an easy sense of balance; she stood slightly bent forward, but without hunching, one hand placed on a porch column with peeling white paint.

Eyeing my dog’s unusual markings, she commented on what a pretty face Herky has.  “Thanks,” I said. “She’s a Turkish Kangal mix.”

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I was about to keep walking, but the woman made another comment, this time about how she prefers big dogs like Herky, not the little ones.  I agreed cheerfully, and again, made to continue on our stroll.

But before I could take a step, she questioned where I was from, and it turned out we were both Midwesterners and both military wives.  Resting one hand on the column, she placed the other hand decidedly to her chest and said, “My husband was an Iwo Jima Marine.  Does that tell you how long we’ve been around?  I’m 86!” she declared.  “And my husband is 88!”

“Really?” I said, turning to face her fully.  “Wow.  You must have seen a lot, and he must be very brave.”

“He was, but he won’t talk about it now.”  She patted her heart and pursed her lips.  “It’s just too sad.  He lost all of his friends.”

 Even from my spot several feet below her on the sidewalk, I was sure I caught a glint of tears in her eyes.  It was momentarily silent, as that last remark sank in.  The woman – let’s call her Gladys – took a breath, and Herky lay down in the grass while I learned about Gladys’ history.  She was a journalist, but also very good in math, and later became a statistician working in California.  (“Do you have a career, my dear?”  She was pleased to hear I did, because “it’s important that we have careers.  We must be independent.”)
Marveling at anyone who can use both sides of her brain the way she could, I listened intently.  But mostly I wondered how long she might have gone without talking to someone today.  And was she standing on her front stoop for a long time?  There was no chair to sit in, no swing to relax in — just a stoop built for the few moments a visitor might wait by the door to come in.  But when was the last time Gladys received a visitor?

She should receive a lot – evidently, Gladys was a woman with stories to tell…

She traveled the world with her husband, the two of them consciously deciding not to have kids.  “We wanted to see the world,” she said emphatically.

She helped put her nieces and nephews through college and found other ways to support the children of the world who needed it.  “The world has enough children who don’t have anything,” she said.  “We might as well help them instead.”  She and her husband “bought this house from the blueprints – they built it custom” and have lived here for over 40 years.  This month, they celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary.

A life across the globe, a purposeful career.  A partnership that shared adventure, a sense of service, and teamwork.   And now, was there a touch of loneliness?  Or was it more pride and exuberance with an underlying sense of desperation to share her story?

Is there a difference?

Does she come out here every night, longing for passers-by to listen to her?
I remember two old ladies who lived next door to us when I was a kid — their door was always open for us, and we were never too pained to pay them a call and enjoy macaroons and milk.  We would tell them about the games we play in the neighborhood, about the ramps we built for our bikes.  They’d nod and smile and invite us back the next day.  They let us use their big backyard as a playground, and it was the perfect place to catch lightning bugs in the summer.  Many times we’d catch a glimpse of them watching us from an upstairs window, calm smiles on their faces.  Now, I wonder if they sat up there in their rocking chairs, breathing in the summer air and listening to the joyful sounds of children laughing.
And I wonder if Gladys just enjoys watching people pass, commenting on their dogs, young couple’s kids on their bikes, or joggers’ stride.   And do those passers-by appreciate her words?  Do they listen?
We all crave contact in some way.  We all need validation that we indeed are still a part of this world, and that our presence, our past, our purpose, has meaning to someone else — or at least that it could have meaning.
Ultimately, it was Gladys who ended the conversation, not me.  She was talking about her anniversary, about the long life of travel and adventure she and her husband have had.  “Our life has been wonderful,” she said with a sublime look on her face.  “You go enjoy yours now.”  She waved, smiled, and turned inside the house, leaving me (and my marriage) to feel somehow blessed.  Sixty-two years…
I continued down the road, a thoughtful grin on my face.  In the midst of all this world’s drudgery lives a lady whose life is rich with adventure, romance, companionship, service, and a true sense of self.  If more people could listen to her, could hear her stories of travel, of love, of marriage, of giving to others who have not, could not the world be a better place?  Could not we make better choices?
Could not we get rid of our belief that the world – and that people – have lost all beauty?
Just a block away from home I heard a baby’s cry coming from a house’s window.  “Fitting,” I thought.
The crying ceased by the time I reached the end of the block, and I imagined a mother nuzzling her baby’s face, with a calm only she could give her child.
And it struck me, this great circle of life of ours – from an old lady’s remarkable past to a baby’s longing cry, we all have a story to tell.
But it is the ear that listens that reaps the greatest rewards.

Tell me what you think! :-)

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