My friend runs an assisted living residence not far from where I live. When she called to say she had a mitzvah (a good deed) for me that was “right up my alley,” I was wary, to put it mildly. She explained that she was running an event where the residents would play a game encouraging them to share, open mic style, stories from their lives. My friend knows I write — essays, memoir pieces, a novel. I tell stories.
“Will you come?” she asked.
I wanted to say no. As my children will tell you, with the rare exception of a Shabbat round of Scrabble or Bananagrams, I don’t play games. Maybe I’m uptight, or just no fun, but games are not my thing. The idea of helping to facilitate an octogenarian quiz show was not high on my list.
But the truth is, this event was out of my comfort zone for reasons having nothing to do with my game aversion.
Lately, many of my friends have been investigating, planning and cajoling their aging parents into moving out of their homes. Those who are lucky will relocate as intact couples, husbands and wives facing this enormous transition together; many others need to move because they are now alone.
The Circumstances of Our Parents
My friends optimistically talk about their parents’ “new circumstances.” There will be meals, nurses and social workers onsite and transportation to medical appointments, they say. And most of all, there will be socialization. Art lessons and book groups and Zumba. A year-round summer camp for old folks to fight off the isolation.
For better or worse, my own parents never lived in one of these seemingly idyllic places. My father died at 70, too young and basically too healthy to need that sort of situation. My mother lived into her mid-80s and stubbornly remained in her house, fiercely independent to the end, long past when being alone in suburbia made any sense at all.
Although I didn’t tell my friend, and I couldn’t have articulated it if I wanted to, the idea of participating in her program made me sad. But how could I not give an hour of my time?
Let the Storytelling Game Begin
My friend meets me in the reception area of the facility, where the residents are lounging, many speaking animatedly to each other. I’m a VIP guest, a “personality” from the community. Other than a brief intro, I play the game just as the residents do. The “host” calls someone up to the microphone, and the contestant picks a card from the deck.
Each card has a question, something to start a story: Who was a teacher that influenced you? Tell us about a time you watched a sunset with another person.
The contestants make their way to the front of the room, some on their own steam, some with walkers, others helped by an aide or a relative. The stories they tell are the ordinary ones of life. The time the electricity went out. A typical dinner with the family. As each speaks, I find myself simultaneously present in the moment, and magically transported, as I hear in my head my own parents answering the questions, telling the stories that they would tell.
My mother’s favorite pet? Amber, a golden retriever so sweet and docile that my cousins named her “the breathing carpet.”
Where did you grow up? My father’s Bronx tale, where kids of all ages played in the street together, no arranged play dates, until their mothers called them in for dinner.
A favorite vacation? They both tell of our family’s six-week journey across the country in our 1972 Chrysler station wagon, complete with a blow-up raft in the back where I, age 6, slept, before the days of car seats.
The Power of Life-Affirming Stories
As I await my turn, I am afraid that whatever question is on the card will call to mind only a story that will be too filled with loss and too personal for this room of my parents’ peers.
When I hear my name, I go to the front, and involuntarily make some face that shows my uncertainty. I get a laugh and feel a little more relaxed.
When the host asks me to speak about a favorite photograph, I take a deep breath. And then I do talk about my parents, about how the photographs of them are the ones I most enjoy now that they are gone. I tell of a picture of myself and my mother that sits on my mantelpiece. I am a little girl with a mop of blond curls, and my mother is holding me. And I tell them that my daughter has the same mop of blond curls.
The stories of the residents, though brief, are filled with gratitude and pathos. One woman says that she is heartbroken to have been forced to leave her home, but others are clearly thriving. And there is much humor. One woman is asked to describe something she wishes she were good at but isn’t. She admits that she can’t come up with anything, and asks if she can list the things she does well. Another agrees to play the game, but when she gets the microphone, refuses to answer the question on the card. She has another story to tell.
Back in my seat, I feel that rush that comes with being vulnerable, and then finding acceptance. We’re family now.
Telling our stories is life affirming. Telling our stories is critical. Our stories are what we will always have left.