Sunday, February 8, 2015

Chatting with Strangers

I took a day off from work on Friday, just to safeguard my sanity. Everybody needs a little time to themselves once in a while, after all. For me this occurs about every six weeks. Besides this, my brother is home between construction jobs. He’ll most likely start his next one at the end of February, so I thought a day to spend time together before he leaves would be welcome.

We were supposed to go skiing at one of the local resorts (this being North Idaho, there are six within an hour’s drive). Unfortunately, though, we are having the weather of mid-April in February this year, so it was 45 degrees out. There were avalanche warnings due to the melting snow. We tended to think it would be safer to stay away from the slopes.

My brother has a membership with a local gym, so we decided to go swimming at the pool there instead. It was a lot of fun. When I was a child, my mom took us swimming all winter at indoor pools, so our Friday outing was quite nostalgic.

However, the real interest of the outing came when I was in the public showers, finishing my ablutions before heading out to meet my brother in the lobby. An older woman emerged from the shower stall beside me and seated herself a few feet away. I was inserting my contacts when without warning she said, ‘You’re so skinny! I used to look like that.’

I glanced at her in surprise (firstly because she was in very good shape for being probably in her late sixties, and secondly because I’m fairly trim and fit, but not what I’d call skinny). She seemed regretful of her past slenderness, so I suggested that perhaps the loss of one’s youthful looks was worth it in exchange for wisdom and experience.

I’m not sure if that comment unleashed her tongue or what, but next thing I knew she was telling me her life story.

I discovered that she was preparing for her upcoming fiftieth high school anniversary. I also learned that her father was on a PT boat in World War II, in the Pacific theater, and that he would have been part of a crew to sneak a bomb into Tokyo harbor, had the atomic bombs not been dropped first. She informed me that she had two brothers and two sisters.

Then she moved on to her married life. She showed me her beautiful diamond ring and said that after forty-eight years, she still had the original husband. She also let me know that, while they had been high school sweethearts, they had waited to get pregnant until they married at age twenty. The tone of implied disdain in her voice for those who did not wait so patiently was rather amusing. She also recounted the epic tale of how she and her husband met each other in Europe in the July after they were married. He had been sent over about two weeks after the wedding, but due to paperwork she couldn't join him for another few months.

In the end, she had to travel alone to Germany, but it was quite the exciting journey. Her aunt and uncle got her safely on the train, but almost lost their own daughter in the process. She had to catch a taxi in New York City in order to get to La Guardia, but the man who shared it with her made a pass at her. She switched from training through Europe to flying above it, so her husband was waiting for her at the station in Frankfurt instead of the airport. Apparently everything ended up happily, though, and has continued more or less in the same vein, since they are still together forty-eight years down the line.

I listened to all of this because it was fascinating (and also because I feel that sometimes older people in our world end up quite lonely and the kindest thing you can do is share some time with them).

Afterwards, once I had finished dressing and packing and taken my leave of her, I headed out to rejoin my brother – patiently waiting for a quarter hour in the lobby and wondering if I’d died in the bathroom! I told him all about the lady’s story, and then ended up sharing some of her anecdotes with my parents and friends as well, just because it was so interesting.

Then yesterday I was complaining to my brother that I wasn’t quite sure what to write about for my weekly blog post. Nothing out of the ordinary has been happening at work. I'm also only doing rewrites for an old story right now, which doesn’t make for super dramatic blog material. Very sensibly he suggested that I tell the woman’s story.

As you can see, that’s what I’ve done, but his suggestion also made me realize the reason why I should. At the end of our conversation, the lady said in passing that perhaps someday she should sit down and write her memoirs. Many people have that urge to record their lives, but few in the end have the inspiration and ability (or even just time) to sit down and compose such a long story. However, just by sitting with someone and telling the anecdotes and adventures which made her who she is, the lady has passed on her experience, enriched another person’s mind with it.

Of course, because she happened to be telling her story to a writer, it’s highly likely elements will sneak their way into stories of mine. Writers are never scrupulous about the sources of their inspiration, after all! But in the long run it will all be fair. The lady whose name I never learned will not be forgotten since I’ll tuck her story away in my memory for future use. On the other hand, I have been richly paid for sitting and listening, because she gave me the gift of her experience in story form.

I’ve always been more on the introverted side – the sort of person who avoids talking to strangers for fear of getting involved in awkward social situations. However, after my conversation with the nameless lady, I wonder if perhaps more openness to others would be a good idea. Perhaps strangers are an unmined wealth of story inspiration which all of us writers could use both to create better fiction and to honor the people who gave us their stories. 

1 comment:

  1. I think sometimes we talk to strangers because we have a temporary captive audience. I remember my own corralling of innocent strangers when I was younger because I felt no one would listen to me at home.

    You are correct to say that you both gave each other a gift. I remember working at a fast food place once and an older lady had to wait about 15 minutes for her food (for the new batch of chicken) - we were the only ones there except for the boss in the back who probably was crossing his eyes while trying to do paperwork.

    But I let her talk... remembering how I too needed listeners. I can't remember any of that conversation. It was about 40 years ago. But I remember the need to be heard.

    I know another writer who helps older folks put there stories on paper. I think one of my husbands relatives did that once... I would have loved to have a copy...but I never got one. The program at the retirement home resulted in a lengthy memoir that his man gifted his family with - both he and his wife were in the service in WWII. So I am sure there were some very interesting tales.

    Thank you for listening. May you be lucky enough to choose such opportunities when you want and even when you least expect them. :)