Kind words and loving tales

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Our stories matter. We explain ourselves by our stories; we are our stories. Especially at this time of year, when we are full of memories both good and bad about our lives, when we’re about to enter into one more brand new year of possibilities – vowing to be better, kinder, more forgiving – it’s a good time to recall a few of the good stories. The world is a harsh place, but it is also a good place full of good people. We need to remind ourselves.

A country itself is defined by its stories – in America, our good stories are of independence, individual strength, generosity. A classmate told me a story of my father, when he was a Little League coach. “Your dad saved me,” he said. “He came out to the farm and told Dad he couldn’t field a good enough team without me. He had an old glove for me, he’d pick me up, bring me home. I think that was the kicker; he got to Dad’s pride. If it hadn’t been for Clem O’Brien, at some point, I’d have been a bad boy.”

I hold that story close to my heart. It shows a piece of my dad I didn’t know, that he never told anyone but that rings true. I would never have heard the story from my dad, and his former catcher on the Sox charmed me in a way that I knew there was no telling how many other boys he aided and abetted.

After my mom died, several of the African American women in her town came to the house to tell my sisters and me how much they were going to miss her. One of the women was Mom’s hair dresser, and one day she had been talking to Mom about their church organist moving away and how no one in the congregation could step up and hold them together in the hymns of their faith. Mom said, “I played the organ for 30 years at St. Joseph’s in Jefferson. I’ll play for you.”

That story is evidence of love and generosity, and I’m so glad those women told us. Mom could play anything from popular to classical; that she played church music for these friends she loved made my heart swell.

Stories like these are small blessings. They fill me with gratitude for the graciousness of my parents, for their love, compassion and kindness. It is the hearing of such tales that make me a better person.

My great-grandfather, whom I have a slight memory of – I think he died when I was three or four – did something once that I have always thought was the epitome of “saving grace.”

Grace was the name of my grandmother, and she told me a story of when she was first dating my grandpa. Invited to his home for dinner, shy, partly because she was in a strange milieu, from a different part of town than where he lived, and unsure about the formalness of the table setting, she was feeling daunted by everything. Her mother had told her just to pay attention to what the others did and she’d be okay. But she was the first to receive the pickle dish. With no precedent to follow, she stabbed a pickle and ate it off the fork. When she glanced up at her future mother-in-law, a formidable woman, she knew she was doomed. Embarrassed, she passed the dish on to her future father-in-law, who calmly did as she had done.

A man of not only good manners but true gallantry.

My husband told a story of playing pool at Sandy’s Pool Hall on the south side of the square one blizzard of an afternoon during high school. The buses couldn’t get to the country to pick up students, so school was cancelled, and the teenage pool players were cuing it up against the regulars. The 16-year-old who would someday be my husband took a drag on a cigarette, laid it carefully on the side of the billiard table, exhaled, eyeballed the layout and took aim with his stick . . . just as the basketball coach burst through the front door, shouting for players to get to the gym to practice. A true gentleman of a farmer picked up Jim’s cigarette and took a drag.

I’ve always loved the story of that fella’s quick thinking almost as much as I love the sense and sensibility of his act.

The curt things said to us, the slings and arrows, will be with us forever. But it is the loving tales of kindness that influence us toward thoughtfulness and the hope that fills our souls in stressful times of too much news of evil intent. A kind word truly goes a long way, and the actions that urge us here on earth to work for peace to men and women of good will go even further.

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