Her skin was delicate and papery, lined with the traces of a century of worry and laughter. Particular care had been taken with her white hair that day, and she had put on her pearls for our date. She was beautiful. Not beautiful like the young woman in the black and white photo in front of her door, the one where she shakes hands with a toddler, her hair perfectly combed.
Beautiful in a deeper way, like a piece of fine wood furniture that you look at and say, “They don’t make them like that anymore.”
When I spoke with this woman, her granddaughter, a Gen X’er, served as an amplifier and translator, helping to fill in the gaps in the stories that are slowly being lost in time and dementia. Meanwhile, the woman’s 80-year-old daughter sat nearby, helping to share her mother’s 100-year-old story.
What an honor it was for me to be seated in this small room! Not because my centenarian interviewee was a special or important person by the glamorous standards of our rapidly changing society, but because she had 100 years of stories to tell and I got to hear some first hand, with soft, deliberate words and sometimes- repeated phrases.
These are the stories that I, in turn, share with you.
I enrolled in journalism school because I’ve always loved writing. The interview part I could have done without – or so I thought, at first. Why would I want to interact with strangers, I reasoned, when I can tell a great story on my own?
But 15 years in the business and I’ve learned that these interactions with strangers aren’t just vital, they’re a gift.
A few weeks ago some colleagues and I attended an awards banquet for reporters from across Ohio. We brought home plaques and even posted a short story about the awards, which gleaned mostly “laughing” emojis from the 15 people who viewed it. Hey, that’s okay. We don’t do this for the rewards. Or the money.
Local journalism isn’t as glamorous as national media or celebrity gossip or even the bigger tube news. Those of us who have been doing it long enough don’t have the ambition to make the front page of the New York Times; we simply love our communities. The good and the ugly. We are passionate about our work because we consider it our duty and privilege not only to be watchdogs and “news announcers”, but to document, for the love of history, the lives of people celebrating feats not so small as turning 100.
When the daughter of my centenarian interviewee emailed me last week asking if I would be interested in telling her mother’s story – she still remembers living along the English coast and d ‘having heard air raid sirens in WWII – I paused first because I know there are others out there that I won’t have the time or opportunity for to tell the stories.
But this week, for Isabel “Betty” Beggs, I got both.
I say all this to remind you that even if your print newspaper is not as thick as it was in 2007 when I graduated from journalism or in 1990 before the World Wide Web, my colleagues and I remain present in your community to share the stories of your children, friends and neighbours.
My story ideas come from local sell walls and neighborhood watch pages and line up at the grocery store or go to the park.
When I receive emails from people like June Nethers, who alerted me to her mother’s upcoming 100th birthday, it makes me happy to know that people still understand the importance of a community sharing their own stories.
I learned a few things from my time with Betty, June, and Sarah that day in a run-of-the-mill assisted-care facility full of remarkable people: that there’s probably a correlation between longevity and not smoking; that you can be 99 and still have a great sense of humor; and that each person has a story to tell.
Some are just longer than others.
If you are reading this, please support storytelling in your community. It’s a privilege I never take for granted.
Abbey Roy is a mother of three daughters who make every day an adventure. She writes to keep spirits up. You can probably reach her at [email protected], but the responses are structured around bedtimes and weekends.