Our Elders Have A Lifetime of Stories

Mary and John Anderson are retired schoolteachers living in warm Sarasota, Florida.

And every Friday afternoon, Mary and John Anderson walk down to the beach with a group of friends to watch the sun set in the west coast Floridian sky.

I relaxed back into my office chair and held the phone closer to my ear as John Anderson’s cheerful voice crackled in the phone.

He told me about how his father used to be in espionage, arresting Nazi and communist spies. No one in his family knew, not even his own mother. They knew he worked for the FBI and that he reported to the Supreme Court, keeping them up to date. But no one suspected that when the office called their home and asked for their father to “come to the office,” he went out for espionage business. He and his siblings were trained to pick up the phone by the third ring and answer with a formal greeting, “You’ve reached the Anderson household…”

“You should’ve seen us run and scramble for that phone whenever it rang,” John told me, with a soft chuckle.

The rest of his group of friends are definitely a diverse bunch.

John told me about a little Indiana farm boy who grew up to become a successful electrical engineer. He is now 91 years old living alone in a condo next door. The 91 year old engineer just recently designed and built an elevator in his condo for his dog who “has a very bad leg and can’t climb the stairs like he used to.”

“When he was younger, he had a 42 foot–or was it a 45 feet, ah I can’t remember–sail boat that he sailed from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And now, he’s 91 and builds an elevator all on his own. No help,” John remarked with pride.

Then there is the Austrian couple. John’s family has visited the Austrian couple’s grown children in Austria. John and Mary’s own grown children are in close contact with the Austrians, since they live in Europe. “Everyone thought we were crazy to not go to Disney World with the kids, but instead we went to Europe for the summer. I don’t regret it one bit. And we did it more than once. If you can in the future, always go to another country with your kids. They’ll learn, have fun, and probably be some of the best memories they’ll have!”

“Oh, don’t forget the Canadian couple, honey!” Mary’s voice chirped in the distance.

“Oh, yes, the Canadians! Oh, they are such nice polite folks,” he stated matter-of-factedly. I tried hiding a giggle, while I heard Mary murmuring her agreement in the background. John and Mary spoke so innocently about the stereotype. Their naivety made me believe that they were simply just mentioning the first trait they thought of about their Canadian friends. It warmed my heart and brought a smile to my face. Oh, and apparently Canadians really are nice.

“Oh, and listen to this one…”

So, the wife is a Coptic Orthodox Christian from Egypt, and her husband is a Polish Jew who escaped the holocaust by escaping through mother Russia to the United States.

“Now, isn’t that the most interesting couple you’ve ever heard! I don’t know how people find each other, but they do!”

Then there is the Italian couple from the Bronx. “The wife still has this beautiful Italian accent when she talks, and she’s been here since she was 15–“ “No, John, 17,” Mary interjected. “Ah, yes, you’re right! We’re trying to see if she’ll teach us a few Italian words.”

John continued telling me different stories like how he and his wife met and how they met their friends. And the more he spoke about himself and his friends and all their histories, the more fascinated I became. I wondered, how many opportunities  to hear great real life stories have I missed simply because I didn’t talk to people and just listen. Sometimes, I find myself so self-absorbed, never taking the time to just ask about other people’s lives. A simple how are you should be asked, and just actively listen to what follows. Be sincerely interested in the other person and ask even more questions to and about them.

What was supposed to be a quick question about what would be the most convenient time to interview the couple about an event they participated in turned into an extraordinary conversation.

By the end of the phone call I made a decision. Not only am I going to talk ask questions more; I am going to talk to my elders more. Sure sometimes they may talk incessantly, but that’s because they have a lifetime of stories to tell and not many more years to tell them. And I realize I’m young and have a long time ahead of me to listen.

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