Many years ago, long before ancestry.com and spit-in-a-tube DNA tests, I sat at the kitchen table of the little house on South College Street and asked my daddy’s daddy to tell me about his family. Not us, all the grown-up aunts and uncles who used to be the children he bounced on his knees and threatened to, but never did, spank with a leather belt. Not us cousins, who rushed in and out of the house like indecisive waves, the screen door sounding behind us over and over. But his original family, the one into which he was born in the early years of the 20th century.
I knew that he had lost his father when he was just a young boy, that as the baby of the family his mother eventually moved in with him and my grandmother, that he lived through what he called Hoover Days and was, as a result, a Yellow Dog Democrat, which he would remain until the day he died. What I didn’t know, until that day, was the story of his sister Vera who, at the age of 17 years and one month, a newlywed expecting her first baby, succumbed to the flu epidemic of 1918.
Pa told me the story that day, responding to my leading questions while staring off into the corner behind me, telling it as if he’d never told it before, as if some of the details slipping out of his mouth were things he never knew he remembered. As if maybe he’d never allowed himself to remember them before. He told me about the casket that they made right there on the place, a pine box that they lined with unginned cotton. He told me about the two coins they placed on her eyes and he told me how hard it was for the mule to pull the wagon carrying her casket up the rutted dirt road.
That was the day I learned to listen.
Listening is a misunderstood skill. It is introduced to us as a singular imperative – Listen! – on the first day we step into a classroom and we learn that it involves being able to parrot back to whomever asks what that person – teacher, parent, coach, minister – has said. “What did I just say?” many an exhausted adult has asked an inattentive child or uninterested teenager and walked away with a false sense of accomplishment when the child or teenager recites a series of words correctly.
Listening involves not just auditory nerves and the knowledge of a particular language. It involves sitting or walking slowly. It involves being ready to be surprised, amazed, astounded at something you had no idea was there. It requires letting go of preconceptions and the need for reciprocity.
I started thinking about my Great-Aunt Vera a few weeks ago when someone compared the COVID-19 pandemic to the death that swept the world in 1918. And those thoughts should probably have faded a little as things began to look more like the normal I knew before. But they didn’t; I kept thinking about that afternoon at the kitchen table of the little house on South College where I learned to listen. And, over the last few days as I’ve watched the world spin like a top losing its momentum, it has appeared to me that we, as a society, have been having an incredibly difficult time listening to each other. Really listening.
I’m not suggesting that everything – disease and poverty and injustice – would magically disappear if we all just stopped yelling and took a nap, but I don’t think it would hurt.
I’m a writer (which is nothing at all like a doctor or an economist or a politician and which requires me to be still a lot and listen a lot), and I like to hear from other writers about how they navigate the world, especially right now. A blogger I sometimes read said this the other day: “Our work is to bear witness from where we sit, to be honest about what we see, and to believe people when they tell us what they see.”
I think we can do that. I have to believe we can do that. I have to believe that we can learn to listen.