She carried a knitted hat as she walked into the restaurant. Her disabled son only a step or two behind her. He slid into the booth. She walked up to the table where I sat with my coffee.
“Put this on my bill,” she hollered over her shoulder to the waitress. It wasn’t a truck stop restaurant but they sold gifts like knitted hats and leather earrings all the same.
“How much?” the blonde gal hollered back.
Then turning to me, she said, “That’s a good price for a knitted hat, don’t you think? It’s cold outside.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “You’re going to need that hat.” There was a freeze the past couple of nights. I had put on my winter jacket before walking Hemingway that morning. Frost covered windshields and sunflowers.
“I see these people running around with shorts on in the middle of winter and I think how foolish that is,” she added.
I nodded, “It is crazy.”
She slid into the booth across from me. On the radio was a song I recognized. She started singing along. “I used to sing this song when I was in high school,” she said. So did I. I figured we must be about the same age, although I didn’t think we looked it. I don’t know how all the other people I went to school with got so old when I didn’t.
“I want toast,” her son said.
“You want toast?” she replied.
“Yes,” he said.
I had a feeling he might eat the same thing every morning.
She slid out of her booth and walked over to a couple at the booth behind me. “My mother-in-law turns 101 this week. Can you imagine?”
“No,” they shook their heads.
“I heard about a woman in Louisiana who turned 119. That’s a long life.”
“I don’t want to live that long unless I’m in good health,” said the man.
Wouldn’t you have to be in relatively good health to live to 119? I mused.
“Me neither,” she said. “We pretend like we take care of ourselves in the country but we really don’t. You from around here?”
“No,” the couple said. “Michigan. We are exploring the country.”
“Well, I hope you like it here,” she said.
I took a bite of my oatmeal with hazelnuts, sipped my coffee and thought about how odd it is to see a person walk up to complete strangers and strike up a conversation as if they’re long-time friends. I confess to being a bit uncomfortable when she first approached me, but then I wondered how lonely her life might be.
The night before I had spoken to a group of women at an author’s event about how it is that the iPhone has practically ruined us, especially us writers. For many years, some of my best material came from eavesdropping in public places. People don’t sit around and tell stories like they used to, I told the gathering. I can’t listen in to conversations they are having on their phones. Churches quit holding Wednesday night prayer meetings and as a writer friend of mine in Alabama says, “Prayer meetings were the best source of gossip.”
I don’t know about you but I miss the days when the most scandalous gossip was learning that Mr. Joe’s mother Betty got caught sipping from the bottle of vanilla while making Sunday’s pork roast. Or that Mr. Carson got distracted again and sent Sally to school with a sandwich made from the cat’s food instead of tuna fish, and it stunk up the entire third grade classroom so bad that Mrs. Hattie had to send someone to the Dollar Store to buy scented candles for her to burn the rest of the school day.
The kind of talk we hear today seems to be mostly informational based, not storytelling. And the problem with that is that information ain’t necessarily true, even if you think it is. Thinking something is true isn’t the same as it being factual, but it seems like nobody cares much about facts anymore. They just want to believe they are right.
Storytellers, at least the kind that used to sit on the front porch, never cared much about information. Nobody was listening for the purpose of being right. Everybody just sat around swapping stories because it meant we were all part of the same community. It meant that we cared about one another. It was a way of being family, this sitting and telling stories. I learned most of what I know about my own family from the stories I heard from my kinfolks. Now half my kin don’t talk to me because they don’t like who I voted for, or that I think they are betraying the country by supporting a man even God wouldn’t shake hands with for fear of catching one of them sexual diseases the foul-mouthed fella picked up cheating on three wives and a mistress or two. They don’t really like him much, truth be known, but they won’t never admit to it because, well, I don’t really know why. You’d have to ask them.
The people who study these sorts of things say that we are getting to be more and more isolated in this country. They say that women in particular have less friends as they age. They say people in our country aren’t doing a very good job at building friendships anymore. They say that the white men (they are almost always white men) going around shooting kids in schools and in shopping malls and in churches and movie houses because they are friendless, and mentally ill.
It is true that being isolated can make a person mentally ill. It is also true that being mentally ill often results in a person being lonely. I couldn’t tell you which comes first, being mentally ill or being isolated, but I’m not sure it matters much.
I had a cousin who was deaf. Everybody thought at the time he was incapable of learning because he couldn’t hear. Some people treated him like he was slow in a mental way because he couldn’t hear or speak much. But the people who knew my cousin best, they thought he was funny and kind and full of mischief. They also thought he was a honest person. I just remember how much he loved kids. He never had any of his own. His whole life was stunted because being deaf in those days marred a person. Progress isn’t a bad thing, y’all. Not in a lot of ways. It’s good not to mar people’s lives with our limited understanding of what it is like to be them.
Some days, I wonder if we wouldn’t all be better off if we were deaf and couldn’t hear the vulgarities coming out of the mouths of the so-called leaders of this country. When the United State president goes on national television cussing and carrying on and people cheer him like he’s the Christ Incarnate, I wish I lived back in the hills where there was no television, no radio, no iPhones, no such thing as an influencer, whatever the heck that is.
I wish we were all sitting on the porch swapping stories about whatever scandalous thing happened over at the First Church of the Sinners Reformed. Swapping stories seems to bring out the best in us, whereas just regurgitating a bunch of misinformation gleaned from talk TV and talk radio seems to be a pretty sorry way of living. It doesn’t lead to building any relationships, much less a community, or a nation.
So y’all do yourselves a favor. Call somebody up this week, swap some stories with them. Tell them something funny or wild or something that hurts, and let them do the same with you.
Swapping stories is how we begin to heal, y’all, as a people and as a nation.