When I was saving money for graduate school I worked part-time as a receptionist at an apartment building for elderly people. My job was to sit at the main desk in the lobby and answer the telephone or direct guests to the elevator. This was not a difficult job so I spent most of my time chatting with the residents, whom I grew to love as though they were my own grandparents.
There was Bill, whose wife passed away the weekend before they were supposed to move into the apartment. Bill was very lonely, so we would sit in the lobby and play cards and he would tell me about his wife. One day Bill didn’t have time for cards and seemed much happier. I asked him about the change.
He excitedly told me about a telephone number that lonely men could call to talk to women. I didn’t want to be the one to break it to Bill that those calls would show up on his next phone bill at $3 a minute. A few weeks later, Bill was sad again. His children had told him to stop calling those numbers. We went back to cards and stories about his wife.
There was GeriAnne, who was a bride at 20 and a pregnant widow at 21. She told me how she took the small inheritance she received from her husband and bought a house big enough for her and her baby, her parents, and her younger brother. Then she found a job as a secretary and supported all of them financially while her parents helped her raise her child.
“How did you get through it?” I asked. GeriAnne was indefatigably optimistic. “I was just so happy that I had that wonderful year with my husband. Not everybody gets something that special,” she said.
GeriAnne’s brother, Tom, used to visit her. Tom was a pilot in WW2. He was shot down while flying a mission over Germany and had to eject from his plane. While he was parachuting to earth he somehow ended up in the direct path of his plummeting airplane.
“What did you do?” I asked. “Started to laugh. I figured God must have a sense of humor.” Tom was captured when he landed and spent a year as a POW. “I was one of the lucky ones. I came home.”
Then there were the Hot Toddies, a group of elderly women who used to gather every Saturday night in Louise’s condo for their own private cocktail hour. After several rounds of hot toddies, the ladies would gather in the lobby and tell me bawdy stories about stealing kisses from boys after church and tricks they played on mean in-laws, and how they were annoying their children for sport. (They told me other stories, too, but I dare not repeat them.)
“When we get old, let’s all live in the same building and drink hot toddies,” I tell my friends. I don’t know how to make hot toddies but I’ll learn by then.
I learned a lot about life from those wonderful folks and it was the time I spent with them that led me to ask stories of my grandmothers while they were still living.
Everyone has a story to tell and I fear that we’re losing too many real-life stories while distracted by fictional ones on screens small and large. Today I challenge you to share a story about your life with someone or ask someone to share a story about their life with you. Reach out for that connection. That’s how we get to know one another and go from strangers to friends.