Our son was playing a piano recital at a retirement home, and one of the residents sat down next to me before it began. She looked at the program and commented on the music Will was going to be playing. She then told me she had been a piano teacher out of her home evenings and weekends in Milwaukee for many years and that she had worked in a downtown law firm during the day time. She told of taking a streetcar to work and how much she loved what she did, especially the music teaching.
In those few brief moments, the woman gave me a glimpse of our city’s past and a glimpse into the life of a productive, knowledgeable and hard-working woman. Her story stays with me two years later, and I only wish I could have heard more.
In the midst of worthless, fake celebrity and social media culture, our young people walk around with their heads glued to their phones, uninterested and unaware of the fascinating life stories around them. If I had to share advice to young people (on the unlikely premise that they would listen), I would ask them to sit down with their elders and listen to their stories carefully.
I don’t know if my adult children necessarily want to hear about my life years ago or their grandparents’ lives, but I try anyway, thinking that someday, they will want to know more about their own pasts which are tied up in the pasts of their own parents and grandparents. The best stories are real stories. Every life is a story, tragic, funny in ways, and filled with insights into the people we are and the times in which we live.
As a child, I used to pour over the black, antique photo albums from my grandma in Minnesota. Grandma told me about her sister who died of influenza, leaving a husband and two young children behind, she told me about her childhood adventures with her cousin, Albert, who grew up with her, and how they once, as young children, decided to clean their neighbor’s home while she was out. The lady made the mistake of leaving her door unlocked. Grandma and Albert, who were about five years old at the time, even tried to haul out the lady’s feather bed for beating on the line like they had seen their mother do. Unfortunately, they got the feather mattress stuck in the door. Imagine the shock of coming home to that! I think the lady learned to lock her door.
If you have a chance, listen to the stories of older people around you. Encourage your children to do the same. Interest in the lives of seniors is a beautiful gift to them, and you cannot hear the stories of the past without picking up things, the values, ideals and wisdom gained through long years of living.
Here is a bit of my grandmother’s life. A little pristine invitation to a recital one June evening back in 1931 when she was 19-years-old. Her name was Norma Olson. I can almost see the scene at that church where her friend’s piano students were to perform that evening, with Grandma, who studied voice and violin, contributing to the music. A little bit of her life story that I am glad I know.