When I was a student at the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute, I was all about the crafting and telling of my stories. What story would I “do” next? How would I make that story uniquely and perfectly mine?
Then I met an old man from New Mexico, a cheerful old man wearing a hat that proclaimed him to be a World War II veteran. When I told him I was studying to be a storyteller (yes, I was that serious about myself then), he said “I have a story for you.”
He had grown up in a tiny town far out on the plains, almost to Texas. His family owned a few acres, ran a few cows, lived a simple life. He had been hardly more than a boy when he fell in love with the prettiest girl in town.
The old man described her to me in great detail. Long dark hair, shining eyes, a beautiful smile framed with dimples. But her father was a businessman. She was “too good” for the son of a small farmer. When World War II broke out, the boy, like many others in his generation, left school, lied about his age, and enlisted in the Army.
After the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at the University of New Mexico. He became an engineer, married, had children, and worked for the Highway Department. There was never reason to return home. The old folks were dead, the family had sold the land, the younger generation was in Albuquerque, Denver, Los Angeles.
An ordinary story of an ordinary life until …
He found himself driving through Northeastern New Mexico, near his old home. And he started wondering about that girl, the one he had loved from afar. He pulled off the highway, down the dirt road towards the old general store. It was, as he had expected, long-deserted. with the old gas pumps rusting in the sun. He turned the car around in the shade of a cottonwood tree and glanced up at the house where the girl had lived.
There were curtains in the windows, toys in the yard. He sat in his car wondering – was she still there? Were those her grandchildren’s toys in the yard? What did she look like now?
An old woman walked onto the porch. He knew her at once, perhaps from the tilt of her head. Yet she was utterly different. More worn, more twisted by life than he could have imagined she would be.
She glanced at him, a stranger sitting in a strange car not far from her house. Her eyes narrowed in slight suspicion, no recognition.
He turned the key in the ignition, put the car in gear and drove away. “I was afraid,” he told me. “I didn’t want her to see me the way I saw her.”
For years I wondered what to do with this story. It wasn’t mine to tell. It wouldn’t be mine to tell until I found my experience with the story, my “world turns upside down” place, my “new normal.”
And this is the “new normal” – crafting, learning, and performing is not at the heart of story. Community is. Story is the way to reach out, to share and to make connections, even brief ones in a waiting room. That only happens when I listen!