Skills

Losing and Finding Stories

By Trey Ratcliff
By Trey Ratcliff

There is a frail old lady in our neighbourhood, who wanders the streets in the afternoon dressed in a sari. The saris are always tatty and loosely worn. The old lady passes fellow pedestrians without acknowledging their presence. It is as if she does not see them at all. If you say hello, she barely wakes from her reverie. She responds almost unwillingly in a voice which reverberates with melancholy and then continues her slow progress up and down the street. Sometimes she sits on a garden wall to rest. The corners of her mouth are downturned and her stare, straight ahead, is always blank.

I think of this lady sometimes. Perhaps it is because she is Indian. She could be my grandmother. Mostly it is because I’d like to know what her story is. I’d like to understand the lines on her face, the reason for her sorrow and what would make her smile. I would like to know whether she chooses to wear her sari like that or whether her fingers are no longer dextrous enough to manipulate the material while she is dressing. I’m curious about what she chose to do with her life and whether she has any regrets. I’d ask her if she feels at home in this largely white suburban part of London. I’d ask her what home is to her. I would listen to her story, as a voyeur, a psychologist and as a daughter. I’d record her story. Then I’d distil my version of her truth by peppering it with fiction.

How do we decide which stories are worth recording? I see love, hopelessness, joy and betrayal in every face I encounter. We collect our impressions of one another as if they are collages: snapshots of each other’s souls taken from a fleeting conversation, a misunderstood expression, the way we dress or how easily we smile. The knowledge we acquire as we age is often untransferable, lost in translation and given up to the universe when we depart. We love and are surrounded by those who love us in return, yet still we are strangely alone. Even the best communicators cannot impart the web of their thoughts from their own mind to another’s. However connected and accepted we feel, however honest we are, our understanding of another person’s story is filtered through our own perceptions and experiences. There is no plug in and download function. Thankfully.

By Eddy Van 3000
By Eddy Van 3000

What this means is that each individual story, in its truest essence, gets lost. This happens all the more if we are too self-centred or busy to ask how other people are really doing, and to listen. I know time is a factor. We can’t listen to everyone or record every story. We can, however, choose to give a few minutes of real attention to those we love. One of my biggest regrets is not speaking enough to my granddad about his experiences of leaving Uganda in the 1972 exodus after Idi Amin kicked out the East-African Asians. Nana was the head of one of many families, which became political refugees overnight and had to build a life from scratch elsewhere. I was in my early twenties when we realised nana did not have much time left, but by then, on his death bed, he was no longer interested in telling his story. He was a wonderful man.

There are stories all around us. We drove across the country to visit friends in the village of Friesthorpe last week. There was a small church, which would have seated perhaps eighty people. Inside the church there was a small pulpit and electric heaters hanging from the ceiling. The pews held oblong tapestry cushions that showed images of special occasions or had been donated in memory of lost loved ones. At the front of the church were an enormous Bible and hand annotated prayer book dating from the 1800s. I leafed through the ageing pages guiltily, surprised the books weren’t behind glass. Afterwards, we took our time wandering through the graveyard outside, reading the worn headstones. One gravestone marked the place where a former church Reverend and his thirteenth daughter, a poet, had been laid to rest. A plaque inside the church revealed that the same family had lost five sons in the Great War. To me it is comforting to walk through a cemetery, reading the names of dead strangers and working out how old they were when they died. The individuality of headstones reflects how different we are in life. The engravings tell a story.

If only inanimate objects could talk. Can you imagine what the paintings on your walls have seen, what the tree at your window could tell you about the lives of the people who previously lived in your house? All the joyful and sordid details of our lives, played out in plain sight but hidden from all once we are gone. So writer, write. Choose your stories wisely. Write the truth of your life and those around you. Don’t hurry. Do your stories justice. But don’t ignore the sense of urgency you feel in your belly either. Every moment you wait to pick up your pen, there are stories fragmenting, spinning out of your reach into the depths of the universe, never to be heard of again.

13 thoughts on “Losing and Finding Stories

  1. This is a really great post, Nillu. I think of this often, too–the loss of stories. I’m not sure about where you are in London, but the culture here in the states is one of pavement. We pave over our stories. We tear down buildings and towns and replace them with shiny new things that are all carbon copies of something else.

    I’m not sure if you’ve read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” but it touches on this. It’s non-fiction, and the writer talks about how she became obsessed with this woman, Henrietta, who contributed unknowingly to medical research. The author goes through all of this investigative work to learn who she was, who her family was, and she traveled to Clover, the town where they lived and grew up. She is able to tell the story, but there is a scene at the end where she goes back to Clover and can’t find it. It’s all been bull-dozed down. I had two thoughts. 1) She almost didn’t get to tell the story she wanted to tell, and 2) What about all of the other people who lived there? Now we will never even get the chance to know them.

    I think everyone has a story worth telling. Some of us are capable of telling our own, and some of us need a little help. And some stories will just never ever be told, which is really sad. Thanks for this post. :)

    1. Thanks Shane. What a sad image you’ve conjured up of history being paved over. It’s funny, when we moved into our Edwardian semi here in London my parents wondered why we hadn’t chosen a newer build. I find it comforting to be surrounded by old stones. It’s sad when shiny new things are seen to be the default better option.

      I’ve not read the Henrietta Lacks book you mention but I can understand how that obsession to discover a stranger’s life takes hold. I”m glad the author got to record the story before the old town was lost. That must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

      I wonder how much our passion for telling stories, for not wanting to lose stories, is driven by a need to believe in immortality… Cheers for commenting, N

  2. One of my favourite past times to take a picnic lunch down to the older cemetery in town, walking through the gravestones and reading the epitaphs. Back before they were flat against the ground (so they can be mowed over easily) there was such detail and beauty that went into the marker for a loved one. The poetry is beautiful and sometimes silk flowers are left behind from so long ago. The thing that gets me is the dash between dates. An entire lifetime was lived in that dash. Moments, memories, laughter and tears…in a dash.

    1. Hello and thanks for your comment. That sounds a lovely pastime. I should visit graveyards more often. For some, it seems morbid, but my imagination goes into overdrive there probably because of the mix of peace and history. You conjure up such a poignant image of the left behind silk flowers. I’ll think of the your words next time I see the dash between dates. Thanks for that. Nillu

  3. This is lovely, Nillu. It shows you as a very empathetic and compassionate person. I’m sure the woman would find no one better than you to share her story with. It would be received with so much honour and respect. You included many wonderful ideas and phrases, but this one I particularly like: We collect our impressions of one another as if they are collages; I agree that not one of us can fully understand another. Well done. A very enjoyable post.

  4. I think you speak to that certain something that turns certain people into writers. Like you, I find myself constantly wondering, “Hey, what’s the story behind this/that/him/her/this place/that place…”

    Beautiful, poetic post!

    ~Tui
    aka @TuiSnider, popping by from #ArchiveDay on Twitter!

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