A Tapestry of Lives, on Brilliant Display

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Sometimes kindness flows in both directions at once. We doubt Cheryl Somers Aubin was thinking her story belonged under this particular heading, but it seems to us that she was both giving and receiving a kindness.

The instructor told me the best thing I could do as the assistant in his memoir-writing class for senior citizens was to sit back and listen, just really listen.

And so I did. I sat and I listened and I learned. I let the students tell their stories, dig a little deeper and, as the teacher encouraged them to do, "render themselves vulnerable."

The students ranged in age from the late 50s to the early 90s. Funny, sad and poignant stories filled our hours together. And like a flower ever so slowly opening, the students opened up their hearts and their lives, too.

Ed started sharing stories without much emotion in them, but as the months passed, he opened up, dug into painful memories of World War II and poured out his experience and his feelings. He lowered his voice and slowed down his reading. He fought to get the words past the emotions that closed his throat as he shared the horrors of one particular holiday in the middle of the war. Tears flowed from everyone in the room.

Evelyn often had us in stitches as she recounted funny things that happened when she was a child. Doris, with her gift for detail and her sweet Southern voice, amused us all with her stories about the ever-changing area we live in.

The hearing child of deaf parents, Lew wrote about acting out Joe Louis fights for his father and his father's friends as Lew listened to the fights on the radio. Lois told us without a trace of self-pity about sleeping on two dining room chairs during the Depression and about the time her family was evicted. Lois's eyes filled with tears when she told me her grown children recently said to her that she shouldn't bother writing a memoir because they'd heard it all before. I told her to keep writing because "your children will be happy to have your words one day."

One woman brought in a book she'd spent months writing in about her life. Sadly, her mentally ill son had refused the book just the week before, refusing her in a way, too.

Anna, one of our older students, who had a soft voice and walked with a special crutch, wrote about her first husband's final days and the sheer agony of having to commit him to a mental health facility. She shared that no matter where she turned, she could not get help for her husband. We all wept for her and the pain she still felt.

Afterward, during a break, I patted her on the back. She reached out and hugged me, her eyes still watering. "You just go along, and then your life changes in an instant," she said.

I cry and laugh with my students, but mostly I learn with every single piece someone reads. From those who made it through the Depression with the loss of innocence and often the loss of home and family, I learn resilience. From those who served our country during war and peacetime, I learn about patriotism and the depths of courage a man or woman can have. From every student who speaks of an unremarkable life and then reads a remarkable story, I learn about the gifts of our words and humility.

They want to leave their stories, their legacies for their families, and I am honored, in my small way, to help them.

-- Cheryl Somers Aubin, Vienna

© 2007 The Washington Post Company