I was at a dinner party the other evening, feeling a bit lost and unknown, when the host, an older man, started telling me about his hometown in Iowa and how it used to be a community of small working family farms. He had traveled all around the world since then, but his eyes shone as he told me of the old ways of living and I could tell this topic was especially precious to him.
“There’s an author who writes about this,” he said, “I love his books. His name is Wendell Berry.”
Of course, my whole face lit up and we had one of those surprising moments of kinship. How could it be that the combination of words and sentiments that pass by so many, but make your heart leap up, do the same to this person, seemingly different from you in every other way? Suddenly you see a family likeness—the thumbprints of the same Maker—there all along but only revealed in the light of a story.
It is so rare for me to find another Berry fan in the wild, that it made my evening and still amazes me. It reminded me of something that happened the day my grandfather died…
He had a niece his age and her name was Bessie. She was his last surviving relative, and they had grown up together like brother and sister. He would talk with her often on the phone. I had never spoken to her, but somehow I ended up calling her the day he died to tell her the news of his passing.
I sat down on a little concrete bench that had been there since I was a child. We used to crush the Post Oak acorns on it. I felt crushed myself: face hard, eyes dry. Questions rose up inside me: What did it mean? What was the point? He had been so precious to me, such a good friend. He suffered so long. He was alive and full of stories, and now he was dead and gone. And who am I without him?
Bessie answered the phone and I told her the news. I can still hear her old, broken, hillbilly voice.
“No, no, no, no,” she said, over and over again. These simple, perfect words broke open a new spring of tears in me, more healing than I had known. “I’ve been trying to call him. I knew he was sick. No, no, no… He was my friend.” We just cried awhile and finally she started talking. For thirty minutes she told me his stories. Stories I had been aching to hear again.
She told me about the day they picked huge burlap sacks of walnuts and tried to ride into town with them on a borrowed old mule, but how they— she, Pop, and all the nuts— fell off many times before they finally got to the general store. She told me about his pigeons and his brothers, and how poor they were, and how Pop had to run away to keep out of trouble. She told me that he loved me and spoke of me often, and was proud of me. She asked if she would call again.
But that was the last time we spoke. I have not been able to reach her since. It was just a momentary gift, and that’s alright.
My grandfather often talked about leaving this old world, and that’s exactly what he did. I’m not here to offer some warm sentiment about his spirit being with me still. His spirit is gone. If it were here, life would be easier. Death is real and it is a severe sort of parting. Although it’s terrible sad and not right, it is alright. At least it will be. Moments and stories are what we are given and what we have to give each other in this life, and those moments and stories change us.
My grandfather—with the time he gave me and the words he spoke— he changed me. He formed my voice and my character. When I heard his stories again from Bessie, in that brief moment now memory, it blessed me deeply and forever. All that was crushed in me felt alive again, reborn in her simple words. She gave me my grandfather. She reminded me that true stories matter because they were moments spoken in time by God himself, and eternal. She reminded me that his stories were given to me as a gift, and can never be taken from me, never hauled away and buried. She reminded me of his love.
Stories do this. They bring people together, shy at a dinner party, weeping on a bench. They remind us that although we cannot see our own way, there is a good purpose, for in the very best stories the way is dark at times and we cannot imagine a happy ending. They give us hope and make us brave.
I need this, for I have grown into a season of life where I am no longer surrounded by people similar to myself. This can be intimidating. At another gathering recently, I looked through the bookshelves of the hostess and I realized that she was from a different literary world and the terrible thought came to me that there a thousand such worlds, spinning off famously, ignorant of my own. Who would I be in this new world? What would be different in my life if I had been formed by these stories instead of my own? Is all this just random chance? Do I matter? Do my stories matter?
And then, dear reader, stooping down at a stack of little books on the coffee table, I saw the gingham cover of My Last Name, by Eric Schumacher, a beautiful short story by a man I crossed paths with in a writing mentorship program years ago. There in that far off galaxy, keeping company with books on subjects that had never even occurred to me, was this relic from my own world, and I was comforted. I was still small, but obviously there on purpose, and suddenly I felt myself like the man in a beloved novel, who went to Malacandra.
Who am I? I am a writer, small but brave, and you are here of all places, reading my words. Sometimes they may make you feel known, and sometimes lost. This is what it means to be a reader, dear Reader; it is dangerous business and I feel for you. But what I have learned in this old world is that stories are meant, not to give us an inner circle of safety, but to form our characters as we traverse this wild wide world, yes, often sad and lonely, and yet I believe with all my heart, we are always meant to bump into God’s love, in the revelation of His good story, told so kindly through the stories of His people.
Hello old friends
There’s really nothing new to say
But the old old story bears repeating
And the plain old truth grows dearer every day
When you find something worth believing
Well that’s a joy that nothin’ could take away