A woman inspired to record her Mammaw's life stories finds listening is its own reward.
- Posted on Nov 15, 2011
I’m a teacher, and I like to arrive at school early to get ready for the day. But one day last fall I pulled into the parking lot and sat, thinking about what I’d heard.
For the last few years I’d listened to a National Public Radio program called StoryCorps. It’s a series of intimate, taped interviews—daughters interviewing mothers, wives interviewing husbands, all just average Americans listening to stories told by the most important people in their lives.
Some—like the ailing, elderly man saying goodbye to his wife—moved me to tears.
I thought about the people I love the most. Lord, how often do I take the time to listen to their hopes, dreams, stories?
StoryCorps declared the day after Thanksgiving the National Day of Listening, and encouraged people to do just that. Inspired, I got out my tape recorder and visited my 89-year-old grandmother, Opal Wilburn.
I’ve always been close to Mammaw. I spent some of the best days of my childhood in the house with the big porch my grandfather built on a hillside not far from the railroad tracks in Tennessee.
But I realized our time together was mostly about me: Mammaw doing for me, playing with me, cooking for me. There was so much I didn’t know about her.
She lives in a small apartment now, and I knocked on the door of her home.
“How are you, dear?” she asked.
“Fine, Mammaw, but it’s my turn to ask questions,” I said.
I turned on the tape recorder. I’d gone to the StoryCorps website and copied some of their suggested questions: What was the happiest moment of your life? What are you most proud of? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?
“What was your earliest memory?” I began. But Mammaw wasn’t comfortable doing a Q&A session. Instead, she started to tell stories. Like how she met her husband.
“My daddy was a peddler,” she said. “He sold milk, butter and produce from a cart. One day we headed down a dirt road. I must’ve been about 18. I rode our mule, Daddy walking beside the cart.
"We passed a small farm, where a young man was plowing the land. I thought, My, isn’t he handsome. I wanted to meet him. Most everyone there went to the same church, and it was there I wrangled an introduction.
"We married about three years later, in that same church.”
She had stories about my dad—how he was born with red hair. “I’d never liked red hair,” she said, “but his was so pretty, it looked like silk threads.”
She told about her education. She attended a schoolhouse with one other student, but because of hard times had to drop out after eighth grade. Nothing had made her prouder, she said, than the fact that all six of her kids went to college.
She talked of growing up in poverty, of standing in front of a coal stove in winter, the front of her legs blistering from the heat, the backs freezing. And of walking a mile each morning to her mother’s farm to fetch fresh milk to drink. She told me there’d been times so tough only their faith sustained them.
I thought Mammaw would talk for an hour, maybe. She filled two and a half hours of tape.
I’ve listened to her stories over and over in the months since. This seemingly unexceptional woman has lived an extraordinary life, one that I can barely imagine but have begun to appreciate.
Our lives are the stories we live. I learned more about Mammaw in those few hours than I had in my entire life. It’s amazing what you can discover by simply listening.
I’m making a CD of her stories to give to my relatives this Christmas. Want to do the same? November 25 is the National Day of Listening. Get ready to hear some wonderful stories!
Visit the StoryCorps website.
Download your FREE ebook, True Inspirational Stories: 9 Real Life Stories of Hope & Faith.