Listening for the Stories

“I had her 52 years and 11 days.”

In 1995, Nick Nickerson was a widower moving away from our town to marry a long-time friend.  A slender, youthful looking man in his late seventies, Nick greeted me warmly, and spoke with a lively light in both his voice and his eyes. He was selling some of his extra items, including several of Peggy’s (his late wife’s) watercolors.  I bought two pieces, and he told me a few details of their lives:

“It was so ‘Peggyish’ for her to say when she went to the hospital, ‘If this trip should end in a funeral, it must be happy, celebratory, because I’ve had a wonderful life.  If anybody is mournful and sad, I’m gonna leave before the end of the party.’”  Peggy left a codicil in her will to specifically state her husband was not the type of man to be happy living alone and if he could find the right woman and remarry, no one should be upset.

They had been married for only five days when he left for WWII; he was gone for just under four years.

When he was in the southwest Pacific and she in the U.S., each looked at the sky, one just before dawn and the other just after sunset. They could look at Orion at the same time and know the other was looking at the same thing, a big comfort to them.

Nick was a chaplain, and during Desert Storm, soldiers told him their marriages just couldn’t last through three months of being apart, and they said Nick couldn’t understand, being an old man.  He responded, “Have you ever heard of WWII?”

Nick told me he had grown up in the mountains of southeastern Oregon on a ranch with cattle and horses.  When he graduated from high school at age 17, he had never been outside of Oregon, and he told his father if he had his “druthers” he’d take a trip.  His father replied that there are two kinds of people, those who do things and those who don’t, and the one difference between them is the ones who do, start.

Nick left the next day and returned 15 months later after a trip around the world.

Peggy had been a zoology major at Stanford and she illustrated biologists’ articles.  She began working at her art in earnest at age 50 when their last child left for college.

After Nick’s retirement, he served as a volunteer chaplain on cruise ships, and he and Peggy traveled extensively.  He said they would see an interesting sight together and six months later she’d show him a painting.  That was the case with the lovely original watercolor I now have of a Tarahumara Indian woman nursing a baby and selling baskets in the Copper Canyon of Mexico.  The colors are warm and clear, and the expression on the woman’s face is one of serenity.

When I see Peggy’s watercolors in my home, I think of her private stories, Nick’s adventures, and the tales of their life together.  How much has been told, and who remains to tell it?

And what of the stories of the Desert Storm soldiers, and what of the stories of the Tarahumara Indian?  What others have obtained comfort from looking at Orion and knowing that a loved one shares the same sky?

If we listen daily, if we gather extraordinary stories from ordinary people, we better understand ourselves and our own histories; we gain clarity.

Joseph Campbell wrote about human stories and their common themes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “It will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find . . .”  We need to hear and record the stories and histories of other people, and in the sharing, maybe we will realize, as Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike . . . than we are unalike.”

But to hear them and to record them, to ultimately gain some understanding, we must, as Nick’s father said, begin.

Writing Practice

Ask an older person about the story of his or her life.  Listen.  Write it down.

Look at a piece of art and speculate on the stories told in it.  Write imaginary narratives and dialogues which the piece inspires.



8 thoughts on “Listening for the Stories

  1. Beautiful story, Chris, and it sparked so many wonderful story memories for me…especially being in Copper Canyon 15 yrs ago with my 70 year-old mother…thanks!

  2. And your 2nd writing prompt reminds me of going to antique stores and imagining the stories behind the precious items found there…I love to make up the characters, plot, etc…

    • Thank you, Anne. I’m hoping that people interested in writing will find the prompts on this blog to be helpful. I love your idea of looking at antiques for inspiration. The act of writing requires us to be more attentive.

  3. I took John out to the horse pasture where Sue, you and I rode Friday. walking some of the same path. We took several pictures before the sun went down. Thank you for your story about Nick and Peggy. I think she might have liked to spend a day painting in the horse pasture with us.

    • I think you’re right, Florence. I wish I had known her personally. Each of these autumn days seems to be even better than the last. Thanks so much for your encouragement with this blog.

    • Leia, thank you for this reminder that our stories continue. When I wrote this, I was thinking that we are responsible for passing on the wise stories of people such as Nick but was forgetting that we’re shaping them and making them a part of our own story as well. Thank you also for the wonderful work you do helping people shape their lives and stories.

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